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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Adele Clark, February 28, 1964. Interview G-0014-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Equal Suffrage League of Virginia's efforts to amend the state constitution

Clark explains how the women involved in Equal Suffrage League of Virginia were determined to earn suffrage through an amendment to the state constitution, rather than through a federal amendment. She describes how they worked to accomplish this and the obstacles they faced. In 1918, with the federal amendment approved by Congress, they shifted their attention to ratification; however, still embittered by the events of Reconstruction and put off by the actions of the more "militant" factions of the suffrage movement, the Virginia state legislature refused to ratify the federal measure.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Adele Clark, February 28, 1964. Interview G-0014-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

A great many of the women felt very keenly that they would prefer having the state constitutions amended giving women suffrage by their own states, instead of getting it through a federal amendment. Because a good many of them—Mrs. Valentine herself having been born in 1865 and grown up during the Reconstruction—still felt a little leery about getting federal government interfering in suffrage. So we started right away to get the suffrage through the state Constitution. It's more difficult to amend the Constitution of Virginia than it is to amend the Constitution of the United States. A constitutional amendment has to pass in exactly the same form through two sessions of the General Assembly, and then be submitted to the people. If an "and" or a "the" or a "but" or an "or" is altered in the passage of it through the two different sessions, it doesn't go through at all. But anyway, we started valiantly to do that, and there was a Mr. Hill Montague of Richmond who had the temerity to present the first resolution to amend the Virginia Constitution, giving women the vote, in the session of 1912. The resolution never got out of the House. It was presented in the House, and, as far as I recall, I think it reached the floor that year and got twelve votes out of the hundred members of the House of Delegates. In 1914 we had increased our followers to about fourteen or fifteen votes. I'm not sure of these figures, but they're on record. In 1916 we had forty votes in the House and very good hearing in the Senate. But it never passed the House; it never got through the House of Delegates. By 1918 it was too late to bother with the state Constitution. The federal amendment was almost through the Congress. And in 1919 and in 1920, we worked to get ratification of the amendment. But ratifying a federal amendment on suffrage was extremely difficult. There was a dear old Confederate soldier, a Mr. Young, in the House of Delegates, who had been one of our staunchest supporters. But when we went to him to ask him to vote for ratification of the amendment, he said, "Ladies, you cannot expect me to vote for anything federal. I still bear in my body a wound I received in Chancellorsville, and I would not vote for the federal government to do anything about the electorate." So we lost him. And of course there was the prejudice that still is evident about federal things in many of the southern states. So Virginia did not ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. We were very much hampered by the activities of the Woman's Joint Congressional Union that afterward became the Woman's Party, and which was the militant group. In spite of every effort of the National American Suffrage Association, led by Mrs. Catt at that time because Dr. Shaw either had died before 1920 or was inactive (that is, of course, historic record)… But the National American Suffrage Association was proceeding entirely by educational methods and by non-partisan methods. We did have parades and things of that sort, but everything was on a very legal basis. But the Congressional Union and the Woman's Party, which broke away and followed the lead of the militants in England, would do such things as, for instance, in our own city, where we always got permission from the city authorities to hold a street meeting, they came to Richmond and held a meeting without any permission, which just meant going down to the City Hall to get permission and being assigned a place on Broad Street. But they went and held their meetings without permission and then got arrested, and then said they were persecuted. And they did the same sort of thing in Washington, and they unrolled a large paper in Congress saying "Czar Wilson," and that during the World War. And they burned Mr. Wilson in effigy before the White House in Lafayette Square. And naturally that made a number of the Congressmen very indignant. Getting support from southern Congressmen and southern senators was one of the most difficult things in the world. The only man in Congress from Virginia who voted for the federal suffrage amendment was the Republican Bascomb Slemp from the Tenth Congressional District. John Sharp Williams, Senator from Mississippi, was a suffragist and supported us, but he sent word to Mrs. Catt and Dr. Shaw and the different other women there that he would not vote for the federal amendment giving women suffrage if women were going to behave as the militants were behaving. And Mrs. Catt and Mrs. Edwards of Indiana and several of the other women went to Alice Paul, the leader of the militant group, and urged her not to do these violent things because we would lose the federal amendment in 1918. They went right on being militant, and we did not get the amendment through till '19.