1916: Wilson, Women, and War


Two articles about Woodrow Wilson, women’s suffrage, and the League of Nations


by Bill Holden


Written in 2009.

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1916:  Wilson, Women, and War                                                                                   

Part Two – A Speculation                                                                                               

Supplemental Information (like footnotes)                                                                   


About the Author                                                                                                            




            My father told the story many times of his mother voting for President Wilson in 1916 upon her first opportunity to vote. Women’s suffrage had arrived in Idaho in 1916 and she hoped that the Wilson slogan “He kept us out of War” would mean that her son would not be going to war.

            My maternal grandmother lived in California all her life, including when women’s suffrage arrived there in 1912.

            Much of my career was spent as a lawyer for the Office of the California Secretary of State, where I learned how research the Election Archives.

            Putting these threads together led me to write about how in 1916 Woodrow Wilson was elected to a second term as president.

            Thus the title “1916: Wilson, Women, and War.”



President Woodrow Wilson, who in 1916 was

elected to a second term on a Lie about War.


1916: Wilson, Women, and War


            In 1916 Republican Charles Evans Hughes went to bed on Election Night assuming that he had won California and thus had been elected President of the United States. In the morning he was told that Democrat Woodrow Wilson had won California’s 13 electoral votes and had been elected to his second term as president.

            In 1910 Republican Hiram Johnson had been elected Governor of California as a reform candidate. He was going to “throw the Southern Pacific Railroad out of Sacramento.” In 1911, in order to carry out the reforms, the Legislature, at the Governor’s urging, had proposed 20 amendments to the state Constitution for the voters’ approval. One of the twenty was a proposal for women’s suffrage. In a special election on October 10, 1911, a majority of the (then all-male) electorate approved 19 of the 20 propositions, including approval of the women’s suffrage amendment. The vote on the women’s suffrage amendment was 50.7% “yes” and 49.3% “no,” a difference of 3,587 votes.

            My maternal grandmother lived in California all her life and in 1912, at the age of 45, voted for the first time.

            In the 1900, 1904, and 1908 presidential elections, Republicans William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft, respectively, carried California with 55%, 61%, and 55% of the vote.

            Then in 1912, the first year women voted in California, Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Republican (popularly known at the “Bull Moose”) Party defeated Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic Party by a mere 174 votes out of a total presidential of some 678,000 votes. The Regular Republican Party and incumbent William Howard Taft were almost nonexistent with less than 4,000 votes. The presence of California Governor Hiram Johnson as Roosevelt’s vice presidential candidate probably contributed decisively to Roosevelt’s California win.

            In 1912, of course, Wilson won nationally based on the state electoral vote. He had 42% of the national popular vote but 432 electoral votes whereas Roosevelt had 27% of the popular vote and only 88 electoral votes. Taft had 23% of the popular vote and 8 electoral votes. Socialist Eugene Debs had 3% of the popular vote.

            The total presidential vote in California in 1900 had been 302,000, in 1904 had been 331,000, in 1908 had been 386,000, and in 1912 was 678,000. A guess is that women cast over a third of the 1912 presidential vote. After 1912, California should have no longer been considered to be safely Republican and should have been considered a toss-up state in presidential elections. Hughes likely was behind the times which was why he went to bed on Election Night instead of staying up for the California vote.

            In 1916 the California vote was very close, with 465,936 votes for Wilson and 462,516 for Hughes. Incidentally, minor parties were significant. The Socialist Party candidate drew 43,263 votes and the Prohibition Party candidate drew 27,316 votes. The total vote was virtually a million. Wilson had 46.64% of the total vote while Hughes had 46.29%.

            In 1916 the state electoral vote count was 277 for Wilson and 254 for Hughes. Wilson had 49.2% of the national popular vote while Hughes had 46.1%.

            Without women’s suffrage, California would have voted Republican in 1916, as it had earlier in the 20th Century. California became a toss-up state with women’s suffrage in 1912 and continued as such in 1916. It is clear that the women voters of California made the difference. Woodrow Wilson was the first president elected by women voters.

            However there is a further story about Wilson’s victory and it is illustrated by my paternal grandmother who lived in Idaho. Women’s suffrage having arrived in Idaho in 1916, she at the age of 49 voted for the first time. Her then 23-year old son (my father) was a senior at the University of Idaho. Woodrow Wilson’s slogan had been “He kept us out of War.” Thinking of her son, my grandmother voted for Wilson. In 1917 the presidential term began on March 4. On April 2, 1917, early in his second term, President Wilson asked Congress for a resolution declaring a state of war with Imperial Germany. My father ended up as an artillery lieutenant in France.

            My grandmother thought that the Wilson slogan was not only a description of Wilson’s first term but was also a commitment to continue that policy if elected for a second term. Undoubtedly a substantial number of voters thought the same.

            Another event bearing on this discussion was the election by the voters of Montana, also in 1916, of Republican Jeannette Rankin to Congress, the first female member of Congress. When President Wilson in April of 1917 ask Congress for a war resolution she voted “NO.” As a member of Congress, Jeannette Rankin was a Republican, a woman, and against war. It looks like she and my grandmother were thinking along the same lines.

            My conclusion about the slogan is that the slogan influenced more women to Wilson than it did men. It made enough difference that Wilson won the state. Absent the slogan, Hughes would have won California and the presidency.

            With respect to President Wilson’s request to Congress to adopt a war resolution, we might ask “What did Wilson learn in April 1917 that he did not know in November of 1916?” In his address to Congress, Wilson noted that Germany in April of 1916 had announced some restrictions on its submarine commanders, which restrictions, in practice, were sometimes followed and sometimes not. Wilson contrasted that policy with Germany lifting all restrictions on February 1, 1917, after which all ships would be sunk without warning. Even with the restrictions some American ships and American crews had been lost. With respect to unrestricted submarine warfare, Wilson stated “we will not choose the path of submission and suffer the most sacred rights of our nation and our people to be ignored or violated.” The problem is that the same statement could have been made as to restricted submarine warfare prior to Election Day but Wilson chose to wait until after 29 days of his second term to talk about “the sacred rights of our nation.” Wilson was not honest with the American voters.

            Prior to the Election Day of November 7, 1916, Wilson must have known that early in his second term he would ask Congress for a war resolution. He could not make the request prior to March 4, 1917 because that would have been within his first term. He felt that the slogan must be considered to have been good for the entirety of his first term but not thereafter.

            Wilson’s thinking must have been that the slogan was only a description of his first term. It was not phrased in terms of commitment or any statement about the future. He must have known that many voters interpreted the slogan as a policy which would continue into his second term. He deliberately did not tell of his plan to ask Congress for a war resolution because withholding that information was the only way he could get elected to a second term.

            Wilson’s address to Congress on April 2, 1917 asking Congress for a war resolution was filled with an amazing amount of detail which he must have been preparing prior to Election Day. Thus he knew prior to Election Day that if elected to a second term he would be taking the country into the War early in his second term. This theme is set forth extensively in Part Two – A Speculation.

            Our 21st Century journalists (as well as our late 20th Century journalists) would never have let Wilson get away with not telling of his plan to ask Congress for a war resolution early in his second term. They would ask him for details about the slogan and ask him about commitment. They would ask what he thought about submarine warfare and how important that problem was to our country.

            Put simply, Wilson was elected to his second term on a LIE about WAR, which worked together with women’s suffrage in California. It took both elements for Wilson’s election to a second term.

Stowell and Hermina Holden.jpg


1887 wedding photo of author’s grandmother.
In 1916 she voted for the first time.


            President Woodrow Wilson’s address to a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917, asking Congress to adopt a resolution to recognize the state of war which had been thrust upon the United States by Imperial Germany, contains a number of statements, which when considered together lead to the interesting speculation that Wilson had an overall Grand Plan.

            Starting here there are set forth nine separate excerpts from that address:

1.      “International law had its origin in the attempt to set up some law which would be respected and observed upon the seas, where no nation had right of dominion and where lay the free highways of the world. By painful stage after stage has that law been built up … This minimum of right the German Government has swept aside under the plea of retaliation and necessity.”

2.      “There is one choice we cannot make, we are incapable of making; we will not choose the path of submission and suffer the most sacred rights of our nation and our people to be ignored or violated.”

3.      “What this [war resolution] will involve is clear. It will involve the immediate full equipment of the navy in all respects … It will involve the immediate addition to the armed forces of the United States already provided for by law in case of war at least five hundred thousand men … and also the authorization of subsequent additional increments of equal force.”

4.      “Our object now, as then, is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the truly free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth ensure the observance of those principles.”

5.      “We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individuals citizens of civilized states.”

6.      “A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations.”

7.      “It must be a League of Honor, a partnership of democratic nations.”

8.      “The world must be made safe for democracy.”

9.      “But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried dearest to our hearts, for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”

      Let me suggest that these excerpts read together point to a Wilson Grand Plan of being at the peace conference following the defeat of Germany. At that conference he would be the Architect of a new International Law to protect democracies from being overrun by autocracies. Wilson would also be the Architect of what Wilson called a “League of Honor” to administer and enforce the International Law and to settle disputes between nations.

Notice also the repetition of “concert.” In #4 above “a concert of purpose and of action.” In #6 “A steadfast concert for peace.” In #9 “a concert of free peoples.” One might wonder whether Wilson considered himself as the conductor with the other nations as the musicians who always followed his lead.

The steps leading to Wilson’s architectural success can be set down in reverse of events.

1.      In order that Wilson be respected at the peace conference, the United States must have entered the war and must have been a major factor in the German surrender.

2.      In order that the United States be a major factor in the war, the United States must have raised a sizable army and not be involve merely in the naval war and/or supplying the Allies with war material. The army of one million men mentioned in the address was a good start to creating a sizable army.

3.      In order to ask Congress for a war resolution Wilson had to defeat Charles Evans Hughes and be elected to his second term.

4.      In order to defeat Hughes, Wilson could not appear to be pro-war and (to his surprise) he also had to carry California. The 1912 presidential election with women’s suffrage in California had demonstrated that either party could carry California. Wilson’s slogan “He kept us out of War” appealed more to women than to men and Wilson’s 3,420 vote plurality over Hughes in California undoubtedly was attributable to that slogan together with women’s suffrage.

Wilson’s Grand Plan depended on taking the country to war early in his second term. The Wilson “He kept us out of war” slogan was phrased as a description of his first term and was not phrased as a commitment for a second term but enough voters voted for Wilson based on a hope for a continuation of that policy that he carried California.

One such voter in another state was my first-time voter grandmother living in Idaho, where women’s suffrage had arrived in 1916. She voted for Wilson because she hoped her son (my father) would not be going to war. Her hope disappeared after 29 days of Wilson’s second term and her son ended up as an artillery lieutenant in France.

Twice in his address he used the words “League of Honor.” He also said “The world must be made safe for democracy.” The “League of Honor” must be limited to democracies because such a nation would not make war on another nation, the will of the people being significant in the governing of a democracy as opposed to autocracies or nations ruled by a small group of men.

Putting this all together leads me to suggest that Wilson had a Grand Plan. Wilson thought that he could be the Architect of a “League of Honor” which would establish an International Law and governing body to solve disputes between nations and which League of Honor would be recognized and respected by all the leading nations.

In order for Wilson to become that Architect it was necessary that the United States join the war against Imperial Germany and be a major factor in a successful outcome.

Prior to the November 7, 1916 election, Wilson knew that he was going to take the country into war early in his second term. But in order to be elected to a second term he could not appear to be pro-war. The Wilson slogan was not phrased as a commitment for a second term. The slogan was vague enough that many people would think, or at least hope, that he would continue to keep us out of war into his second term.

Having been elected to a second term, the German announcement, on February 1, 1917, of unrestricted submarine warfare gave Wilson the ready basis to ask for a war resolution early in the second term. Even without the German declaration, there were many sinkings of United States flag vessels and loss of American lives, enough to justify a war resolution. But the German declaration allowed Wilson to state to Congress that the situation had changed completely since he announced the slogan “He kept us out of War.” Thereafter the German announcement in effect overcame the Wilson slogan. The wording of the war resolution was not a “declaration of war” but instead “recognized the state of war which had been thrust upon the United States by Imperial Germany.”

In his address to Congress he visualized a 500,000 man Army early on followed directly by a build-up to a 1,000,000 man Army. In this way the United States would be a major factor in the conduct of the war.

After the war there would be a peace conference which Wilson would attend and he thought that he would be able to sell the European powers on his “League of Honor.”

It all worked out as Wilson planned, except that the name became “League of Nations” rather than “League of Honor” and except that Wilson was unable to sell the League of Nations to the American people. The United States did not become a member of the League of Nations. In practice the League of Nations was a failure at settling disputes between nations. The failure was due to the League membership not being solely among democracies, a point Wilson had made in the “League of Honor” portion of his April 2, 1917 address to Congress.

A reverse example of Wilson’s democracy membership requirement would be Germany. When Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January of 1933, one of his first actions was to take Germany out of the League of Nations, which League the Versailles Treaty had required Germany to join. Apparently Hitler did not want the League of Nations trying to put any restrictions on Germany’s freedom of action.

It is obvious that prior to Election Day, November 7, 1916, Wilson knew that he was going to take the country into war early in his second term. Not sharing that specific intent with the voters amounted to a LIE. It seems clear that Wilson must have known that he was lying to the voters but probably in his own mind it was justified if it was a necessary step to his Grand Plan of being the Architect of World Peace. If the League of Nations had succeeded, his name would have lived forever throughout the world.


In 1914 Republican Hiram Johnson was elected to a second term as Governor of California and in 1916 was elected to the United States Senate in the same election in which he, as the father of women’s suffrage in California, was delivering Wilson his California victory which became Wilson’s national victory. Johnson served in the Senate until his death in 1945.


My mother lived in California all her life and in 1911 when women “got the vote” in California, she was only 15. My mother never “got the vote.” Instead in 1917 she qualified as a voter in the same manner that the men qualified. She became 21 years old, the then-legal voting age.


New Hampshire with its four electoral votes was another state which Wilson won and with a lesser percentage of the popular vote than Wilson had in California. His margin in California had been 0.34% of the total vote and in New Hampshire had been 0.06%. Without Wilson’s slogan Hughes would have carried New Hampshire.


In 1940 Jeannette Rankin was again elected to Congress from Montana and after December 7, 1941, when Congress voted for war against Japan, she again voted “NO.”



            California Secretary of State Election Archives

October 10, 1911 Special Election

Proposition 8, Women’s Suffrage

Yes   125,037   No   121,450

1916 Presidential Election

            (California had 13 electoral votes. Each party names 13 persons to have their

            names on the ballot as presidential electors. Voters voted for up to 13 names as

            presidential electors. The number of voters for presidential electors was not the

            same for each party’s electors.)

The number of votes for Wilson’s presidential electors ranged from a high of 465,936 to

a low of 463,709.

The number of votes for Hughes’ presidential electors ranged from a high of 462,516 to a

 Low of 460,821.


            New Hampshire Secretary of State Election Archives

1916 Presidential Election

            (New Hampshire had four electoral votes. The names of the two candidates were

            on the ballot. Voters voted for one of the candidates. Whichever party’s candidate

            had the most votes, that party’s presidential electors became the New Hampshire

            presidential electors.)

Democrat Wilson received 43,787 votes. Republican Hughes received 43,724 votes.


            Montana Secretary of State Election Archives

1916 Congressional Election

            (Montana elected two members to the House of Representatives. They ran at large

            and not by district. Each party nominated two persons for the ballot. Voters voted

            for up to two. They need not be of the same party. The two candidates with the

most votes were elected.)

            Democrat John M. Evans had 84,499 votes. Republican Jeannette Rankin had 76,932

votes. The others had fewer votes.



            Bill Holden has always lived in California, except for his Navy service in WW II. He graduated from Loyola Law School Los Angeles. The greater part of his law career was spent with the Office of the California Secretary of State. Now retired (as of 2009) he lives in Fair Oaks, California (suburban Sacramento). For comment (encouraged) or to obtain more free copies, use email.

            Email address (as of 2009)