Lila Meade was born in Richmond on February 4, 1865, the daughter of Richard Hardaway Meade and Kate Fontaine Meade. At the age of twenty-one, she married Benjamin Batchelder Valentine, a prosperous businessman. The couple’s marriage was a happy one, with Benjamin Valentine actively supporting his wife’s work on behalf of education and health-care reform, and woman suffrage. The couple had no children, and Benjamin Valentine died in 1919.
Valentine’s career as a reformer began in 1900. Appalled by the inequities of Virginia’s education system, which made it difficult for poor, African American, and female children to receive high quality instruction, Valentine, along with several other activists, formed the Richmond Education Association (REA). The association was remarkably dynamic and productive, and during Valentine’s tenure as president (1900–1904), the REA raised funds for a new high school, founded programs designed to help train kindergarten teachers, called for better training and higher wages for all teachers, and created initiatives designed to help poor white and African American students receive excellent educations.
While working in Virginia schools, Valentine frequently saw children suffering from treatable illnesses, and she soon became interested in health-care reform. In 1902, she helped found the Instructive Visiting Nurse Association of Richmond (IVNA), and became the organization’s president in 1904. The association targeted lower-income residents of Richmond, seeking to ensure that they had access to basic health-care services. Under Valentine’s leadership, the IVNA led an initiative to help combat the then-common disease of tuberculosis. This initiative subsequently became a model for health-care reformers throughout Virginia.
Plagued by ill health and exhausted by a demanding schedule of speeches and meetings, Valentine reluctantly stepped down from her various leadership roles in 1904. On a trip to England, she observed the work of radical suffragists and returned to the United States eager to become involved in the American woman suffrage movement. In 1909, Valentine cofounded the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, one of the most influential southern suffrage organizations. She supposed that an electorate that included women would be more likely to support education and health-care reform.
Although by no means as controversial as when first proposed by reformers during the nineteenth century, woman suffrage remained a divisive issue across gender as well as racial lines. This was particularly true in the socially conservative South, where ideals of southern womanhood still dictated that white women focus on the home and family, and avoid the “male” realm of politics and government. Valentine and her fellow suffragists defied such expectations, asserting their right not only to speak about political subjects but also to vote in political contests.
Valentine initially believed that woman suffrage might be won state by state, with legislatures passing their own suffrage amendments. She toured Virginia in 1912 and 1913, giving more than a hundred speeches to government officials and state organizations. Valentine proved to be so effective a speaker that she was subsequently called on to address crowds in New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and West Virginia on behalf of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Still, a suffrage amendment failed in Virginia in 1916, leading Valentine to fix her sights on an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Equal Suffrage League, meanwhile, had joined forces with the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and over the years it continued to grow. In 1914, it reported 45 local chapters. By 1916, there were 115, including 23 organized in that year alone.