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Explore Women's History in North Carolina

North Carolina women have proven themselves to be pioneering, revolutionary, and industrious. From the Edenton Tea Party to the Civil War to World War I fundraisers, and beyond, they have agitated relentlessly for social improvement and against injustice. The following is a listing, grouped by region, of some important dates for women's history in North Carolina:

The Mountains

1915   The Second Annual Convention of the Equal Suffrage Association of North Carolina is held at the Battery Park Hotel in Asheville on October 29. At this convention, members discuss legislation from the previous year, set goals for the coming year, and reaffirm their commitment to fighting illiteracy in North Carolina. The printed proceedings of the meeting also include a copy of the association's constitution.

1919   The North Carolina Federation of Women's Clubs holds its seventeenth annual convention in Hendersonville. In her History of the North Carolina Federation of Women's Clubs 1901-1925, Sallie Southall Cotton writes, "The enthusiasm of the meeting reached a climax when Mrs. S. P. Cooper announced the completion of the Endowment, $5,000 in cash, the interest of which was to be used for Federation needs. Her success brought rounds of applause" (p. 136). The group was organized in Winston-Salem in 1902 and became an important part of the nationwide women's club movement described by Nellie Roberson in The Journal of Social Forces.

1920   The first woman is elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives. Lillian Exum Clement represented Buncombe County. Her election is especially impressive in light of a telegram sent earlier that year to the Tennessee legislature by the General Assembly. In this telegram, North Carolina house members write to assure their Tennessee counterparts that they will not ratify the nineteenth amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, because they saw it as "interfering with the sovereignty of Tennessee and other States of the Union" (p. 2). Read more about Lillian Exum Clement in the North Carolina Collection's feature "This Month in North Carolina History."

The Piedmont

1821   The Raleigh Female Benevolent Society is officially incorporated. In 1823, the group released a revised constitution and by-laws that included society reports from the preceding two years. In Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History, Guion Johnson praises the society and its first director, Sarah Hawkins Polk. She writes, "She was the life of the organization until her death, and under her influence a thriving charity school for the instruction of orphan girls was maintained. [...] In 1846 the Raleigh Register thought the society was one of the most valuable influences in the life of the town" (p.163).

1855   Laura Elizabeth Lee Battle is born in Clayton. In 1909, she published Forget-Me-Nots of the Civil War; A Romance, Containing Reminiscences and Original Letters of Two Confederate Soldiers, a collection of papers and sketches. Her narrative begins with the story of her birth and continues with her two half-brothers' decisions to join the Confederate army despite their father's open support of the abolitionist movement. In the final section of the narrative, Battle describes her family's struggle to survive after the war.

1867   Mecklenburg Female College is founded at the former site of North Carolina Military Institute in Charlotte. The new college advertises for new pupils by emphasizing the school's "encouraging prospects," unique curriculum, and superior instructors.

1917-19   Orange County women work tirelessly to support United States war efforts during World War I. Annie Sutton Cameron chronicles these efforts in A Record of the War Activities in Orange County, North Carolina. 1917-1919. Cameron describes how women raised funds, organized groups to make bandages and other supplies, and formed a local Red Cross Chapter.

1919   State Normal and Industrial College at Greensboro becomes North Carolina College for Women. Student Life at the college is documented in the yearbook Pine Needles.

The Coastal Plain

1774   Fifty-one women gather at what would become known as The Edenton Tea Party to protest British taxation of tea and formally state their intention to boycott British goods. Loyalist Janet Schaw gives a satirical portrayal for the event in her contemporaneous Journal of a Lady of Quality, but in 1900, members of the North Carolina Society Daughters of the Revolution make it their "special work" to memorialize the event.

1813   Harriet Jacobs, America's most famous female slave narrator, is born in Edenton. Jacobs escaped from her cruel master Dr. James Norcom and hid in a tiny attic room for seven years before fleeing to the North. Her 1861 narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, records her experiences in both slavery and freedom.

1888   Elizabeth Herbert Smith Taylor is born in Scotland Neck. Taylor served as a nurse during World War I with the Maguire Unit of the Army Nurse Corps. She was educated at North Carolina College for Women in Greensboro and received training in nursing at St. Timothy's Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her diary, which consists of pithy statements summarizing the events of each day, begins with her cross-Atlantic trip to France in September 1918 as part of the Army Nurse Corps. The diary provides a fascinating look at the variety of social gatherings created by hard-working soldiers and support personnel during World War I.

1920   The North Carolina League of Women Voters encourages women to exercise their newly established right to vote. In one advertisement with the heading "Women May Now Vote," the league reminds women that they must register to vote and encourages them "to study the issues of the present campaign and to inform themselves as to the candidates for the various offices, national, state, county, and city. Investigate their personal and political qualifications and their stand on the issues of the campaign." In another ad, with the heading "Women Register and Vote," the League asserts "Women have proven themselves patriotic citizens in the past. They have answered every call to civic service. They will contribute their best to the State and Nation now by using their vote for better government."

The Coast

1812   The North Carolina General Assembly incorporates The Newbern Female Charitable Society, a "Society for the education of poor female children; also relief of the poor" (p. 83). Charles Coon reprints the act in volume one of The Beginnings of Public Education in North Carolina; A Documentary History, 1790-1840. In Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History, Guion Johnson notes that the Society was the first "of the undenominational benevolent societies" in the state (p.702).

1841   Mary Norcott Bryan is born in New Bern. Bryan's memoir, A Grandmother's Recollections of Dixie (1912?), offers a wide-ranging, sometimes sentimental description of an antebellum southerner's perspective on her land, history, and culture. The work is presented as a collection of letters to her grandchildren. In these letters, Bryan remembers being a refugee during the Civil War, and paints a grim picture of Reconstruction, which she believed was worse than the war itself. Her letters also include anecdotes from North Carolina history.

1913   North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice and women's suffrage activist Walter McKenzie Clark addresses the Federation of Women's Clubs in New Bern on May 8. In this speech, Clark compares the treatment of women to slavery. In 1915, Clark wrote a dissenting judicial opinion that specifically defended the rights of women to be notaries public, but also called for broader political rights for women in general. He makes this argument again in his 1916 address, "Ballots for Both."

Jennifer L. Larson