In 1913, Virginia lawyer Conway Whittle Sams dismissed the woman suffrage movement as “a craze.” Laws benefiting women, he declared with disdain in Shall Women Vote? A Book for Men, deserved to be cataloged “in a Museum of Legal Curiosities … in the section devoted to Legislative Attempts to Subordinate Men to Women and Children.” Despite such opposition (from both sexes), women would win the vote seven years later. The battle for equality, however, had begun more than seventy years earlier. In July 1848, the first convention agitating for women’s rights, held in Seneca Falls, New York, produced a Declaration of Sentiments asserting that “all men and women are created equal.” Of those who signed it, only Charlotte Woodward, a glove-maker, lived to cast a vote in 1920, at age ninety-one.
Southern women did not organize in appreciable numbers until the 1890s and failed to mount effective statewide campaigns until 1910. The earliest attempt to organize Virginia women in a campaign for the right to vote occurred in 1870, when New Jersey nativeinvited several men and women sympathetic to the cause to a meeting that launched the first Virginia State Woman Suffrage Association in Richmond. Between 1870 and 1872, Bodeker, as president of the new association, tried to win public support for woman suffrage by writing articles for the local press and inviting national suffrage leaders to lecture in Richmond. She also attempted unsuccessfully to vote in the municipal election in November 1871, asserting her qualifications under the new Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Despite Bodeker’s efforts, the movement did not gain many followers. Virginia women faced tremendous pressure in the post–Civil War period to conform to traditional ways, and conservative politicians were unwilling to seriously consider the suffrage issue. The movement was revolutionary and emancipatory, claiming for women equality of rights, opportunities, and respect with men. More than just paving the way to the ballot box, early suffragists were also attempting to rethink and redefine what womanhood meant—a threatening proposition to men and women alike.
Equal Suffrage League
Orra Gray Langhorne, of Lynchburg, attempted to revive the Virginia suffrage issue during the 1890s, but the association she founded and led was short-lived. Finally, on November 27, 1909, a small group of civic-minded women held a preliminary meeting in Richmond to discuss the establishment of a statewide suffrage organization. Writers Ellen Glasgow,, and Kate Langley Bosher, artists and Nora Houston, physician , and reformer , among others, came together to form the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia.
Within its first few months, the league, under the able direction of Valentine, joined with the National American Woman Suffrage Association and began a public campaign to educate Virginia citizens on the issue. The league held street meetings in Capitol Square and on Broad Street at the corners of Fifth and Sixth streets, where Clark would set up her easel and start painting to lure the curious to suffrage speeches. “It reached the point,” she remembered, “where I couldn’t see a fireplug without beginning ‘Ladies and gentlemen.'” Clark was elected secretary and later helped direct legislative initiatives, designed and drew postcards, organized suffrage rallies, and went on speaking tours that helped establish new league chapters throughout the state.
The woman suffrage movement coincided with major national reform movements seeking to improve public education, create public health programs, regulate business and industrial practices, and establish standards and create agencies to ensure pure food and public water supplies. Public debate on these issues and simultaneous demands for better roads and public services transformed politics in Virginia and brought into the political process people who had not been active participants earlier. Women were making practical gains, venturing out into the world, forming women’s associations, and participating in reform movements. They put these organizational skills to good use to rally for the vote.
Virginia suffragists employed a variety of techniques to enlist women to their cause, making speeches across the state (often from decorated automobiles), renting booths at fairs, and distributing “Votes for Women” buttons. By canvassing house to house, distributing leaflets, and speaking in public, the members of the league sought to educate Virginia’s citizens and legislators and to win their support for woman suffrage. Beginning in 1914, the group published its own monthly newspaper, the Virginia Suffrage News, although its funding source dried up and only three issues were published. Mary Johnston visited women’s colleges to rally faculty and students to the cause. Soon local leagues sprang up across the state.
Valentine persuaded a group of Richmond businessmen to form the Men’s Equal Suffrage League of Virginia. The state archivist Hamilton J. Eckenrode was among those who signed a resolution in support of woman suffrage in 1912, arguing that the state constitution should be amended “so as to enable Virginia Women to vote on equal terms with Virginia men.”
The Suffrage Argument
Virginia’s suffragists argued that women were intelligent, sensible, tax-paying citizens, and therefore deserved to cast ballots. The home and the world in the early years of the twentieth century were overlapping, not separate, spheres, and women had special concerns and interests that were being poorly addressed by male legislators. Virginia suffragists staunchly maintained that women, in order to be good mothers, needed to be good citizens. “Home is not contained within the four walls of an individual home,” suffragists argued; instead, “home is the community.” When antisuffragists argued that men were the commonwealth’s natural-born leaders, intellectually and physically superior to their female helpmates, suffragists countered that women could add valuable insight and energy to solving a number of problems largely ignored by politicians, including education, health reform, and child labor. The woman suffrage movement worked toward equal rights for women as citizens, as well as the right to vote. It was perhaps more important that the movement was building change on the foundation of a new, self-developed, economically independent womanhood.
Public opinion responded slowly to the league’s message, but membership in the organization climbed steadily and spread to other areas of the state. In 1914, the Equal Suffrage League reported 45 local chapters; by 1916 that number had grown to 115, including 23 organized in that year alone, and almost every town in Virginia with more than 2,500 residents had a suffrage league. By 1919, membership had reached 32,000, making it most likely the largest state association in the South. Antisuffragists formed a counter organization in 1912 to refute the league’s arguments, claiming that most Virginia women had no interest in voting and that woman suffrage would open the door for black women to vote, thus violating the restrictive spirit behind Virginia’s 1902 constitution.
The Equal Suffrage League’s strategy focused on winning support in the General Assembly for a voting-rights amendment to the state constitution. Some suffragists grew impatient with the painstaking approach and broke ranks, joining the more militant Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (later the National Woman’s Party), and then pressuring Congress and U.S. presidentto enact a federal suffrage amendment. Some league officers and members organized the Virginia branch of the Congressional Union in June 1915. Although the branch never had more than a few hundred members, they were visible in their efforts to convince Virginia’s senators and congressmen to support the amendment. The National Woman’s Party demonstrated in Washington, D.C., during World War I (1914–1918), while mainstream suffragists directed their energies to the war effort. , president of the Norfolk branch of the National Woman’s Party (and former president of that city’s Equal Suffrage League), was among the protestors arrested in 1917 and sent to federal prison in Lorton, Virginia.
Virginia suffragists succeeded in bringing the issue to the floor of the General Assembly three times between 1912 and 1916, but the vote never came close to passage. Although they took heart in 1918 when Great Britain gave women the vote, and celebrated the following year when Virginia-born Nancy, Viscountess Astor, took her seat in the British Parliament, the first woman to be seated, disappointment marked the efforts of suffragists to convert Virginia’s political establishment. When Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment in June 1919, the Equal Suffrage League fought hard for ratification, but Virginia politicians did not relent. Despite the efforts of the Equal Suffrage League, Virginia was one of the nine southern states that refused to grant the vote to women. Virginia women at last won the right to vote in August 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment became law, and exercised that right soon after, in the November elections. The General Assembly stubbornly withheld its ratification until 1952.
Suffrage and Race
The issue of race inevitably complicated debates over suffrage in Virginia. At first, suffragists tried to ignore the issue, which had the effect of sidelining African American women, who long had been advocates for voting rights. The National Association of Colored Women, of whichand other Virginia women were members, supported woman suffrage when it was founded in the 1890s. When the association held its convention at Hampton in July 1912, it included sessions on voting rights and members of the women’s clubs in Hampton and Norfolk staged a suffrage parade as part of the convention’s celebration of prominent women. Mary Church Terrell, the president of the National Association of Colored Women, was one of the marchers in the 1913 national suffrage parade in Washington, D.C, that attracted more than 5,000 women from around the country the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as president of the United States. She had wanted to march with a delegation from the association, but parade organizer Alice Paul feared that southern women would refuse to march with Black women, who were pressured to march at the back of the procession. Terrell marched with Lynchburg native Jimmie Bugg and the other twenty-two founders of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority at Howard University under its banner. Also marching with the Howard delegation was Nellie May Quander, who was a descendant of two prominent free Black Virginia families that had been enslaved by George Washington and his family. Quander incorporated Alpha Kappa Alpha at Howard University and served as its first international president.
By 1915, antisuffragists were openly exploiting racial fears. They argued that giving women the vote, which meant providing African American women the vote, could as much as double the African American vote and lead to Black control at the polls. The system of white supremacy in the South, carefully constructed and nurtured since the end of Reconstruction (1865–1877), was at risk.
Such arguments openedin the suffrage movement. In 1913, Mary Johnston, in a letter to Lila Meade Valentine, defended Black women: “I think that as women we should be most prayerfully careful lest, in the future, women—whether coloured women or white women who are merely poor—should be able to say that we had betrayed their interests and excluded them from freedom.” Three years later, however, the Equal Suffrage League released a flier, titled “Equal Suffrage and the Negro Vote,” asserting that giving women the vote “would increase white supremacy” because the literacy test and the would continue to serve as effective deterrents to Black voting.
As a result, Black Virginians were almost completely silenced in the public debate. “There was nothing an African American could say [in Virginia] that would help the woman suffrage cause,” historian Suzanne Lebsock has written. Nonetheless, women and men in African American communities discussed the issue of women’s voting rights. The St. Luke Herald, of which Richmond bankerwas managing editor, kept the issue before its readers. She also spoke about the necessity of having the ballot to force those in power to respond to the concerns of African American women. Walker belonged to the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, which supported votes for women. Portsmouth community activist Josephine Norcom was the federation’s delegate to the 1916 convention of the National Association of Colored Women and served on its Resolutions Committee, which endorsed the federal suffrage amendment.
By the time the books closed for the 1920 elections, 2,410 Black women had registered in Richmond (10,645 white women had registered). They still found themselves excluded from the all-white Virginia League of Women Voters—the league’s president, Adèle Clark, later recalled with regret that the organization “never had the nerve” to enroll Black women—and formed their own Virginia Negro Women’s League of Voters. By the end of 1920, several thousand Black women had registered to vote and their voices began to be heard in Virginia.
After the Fight
Within a few weeks of the national victory in 1920, the Equal Suffrage League disbanded. The nonpartisan Virginia League of Women Voters, as its successor, shortly afterward began work to make the new electorate an informed one. The league sponsored registration drives, voter education programs, and lobbying efforts on behalf of social welfare issues. Woman suffrage immediately made electoral politics more inclusive. Many women, like Richmond civic leader Naomi Cohn, spent a lifetime exercising the right to vote won by the Nineteenth Amendment and encouraging others to do the same. “The work is just begun,” Cohn explained to the League of Women Voters in 1927, “and must be kept up so that the voters of the state shall become educated to that duty of casting their votes … and that they will send, to represent them in the legislature, only liberal progressive citizens.”
Armed with the vote, women began to participate in politics., of Richmond, was appointed to the Democratic National Committee in 1920, and Kate Waller Barrett, of Alexandria, was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention four years later. , of Norfolk, and , of Buchanan County, became the first Virginia women to serve in the House of Delegates when they were elected in November 1923 and took office in January 1924. Between 1924 and 1933, six women ran successfully for seats in the House of Delegates, pioneering a wider role for women in state politics. All were Democrats (the majority party in Virginia at the time), and each had a background as a teacher or educator. They were elected from the geographical extremities of the commonwealth—the Tidewater and the Southwest. Despite this initial surge in representation, no women served in the General Assembly between 1934 and 1954.