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League of Women Voters of North Carolina
Women May Now Vote
Goldsboro, N.C: North Carolina League of Women Voters, [1920?].


Items summarized here:

The flyers, speeches, and documents summarized below, dated between approximately 1915 and 1920, represent the controversy surrounding the final push for women's suffrage in the United States. As scholar Steven Mintz notes in his article "The Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment," the struggle for women's suffrage was a long and difficult one: "Seventy-two years separated the original call for women's suffrage at the Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, and the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, guaranteeing women the right to vote" (p. 47). Those 72 years were marked by "prolonged struggle," including "480 campaigns to persuade state legislatures to adopt suffrage amendments to state constitutions; 56 statewide referenda among male voters; and 47 campaigns to convince state constitutional conventions to adopt women's suffrage provisions" (p. 47).

Those in favor of women's suffrage often cited the hope that women could "clean up politics and fight social evil" (p. 47). Others noted that "giving the vote to women would guarantee that white, native-born voters would outnumber immigrant and nonwhite voters," an argument that gained momentum after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which removed race as a legal barrier to suffrage for African American men (p. 47). Ironically, the ability of women to civilize politics was also used against them, as some feared politics was "too corrupt for women" (p. 48). Others, particularly business owners, worried women would "ban alcohol sales" or "vote against the use of child labor and for limitations on work hours" (p. 48).

In 1869, Wyoming became the first territory to grant women the vote. Utah, Colorado, and Idaho followed—many saw this as a way to attract women to the new territories—but other regions of the country were harder to persuade. As scholar Akhil Reed Amar notes, "By the end of 1918," women had won the right of full suffrage in only "15 of the 48 states." Still, lawmakers knew that they now had to cater to both male and female voters, particularly in full suffrage states: "If and when women did get the vote, woe unto the diehard antisuffrage politician who had held out until the bitter end! Each state legislator or congressman . . . had to heed not just the men who had elected him but also the men and women who could refuse to reelect him once the franchise was extended" (Amar). Amar notes that despite the slow and steady accumulation of political power, full women's suffrage in the United States nonetheless came as "a thunderclap," an epic event in which "10 million women" became enfranchised—making the 19th Amendment the "single biggest democratizing event in American history." The documents summarized here reveal the volatile nature of the suffrage movement just before and after the passage of the 19th Amendment as writers advocate vehemently for and against the rights of women.

"Proceedings of the Second Annual Convention of the Equal Suffrage Association," a publication of the Equal Suffrage Association of North Carolina, illustrates in detail the goals and operation of the suffrage group. The text opens with a description of the organization's officer elections and proceeds to the "Report of the President," by Barbara Henderson (p. 4). Henderson notes "a very marked increase in the interest in the cause of suffrage throughout the State," interest which stems from "every part of the State, and from every age and class" (p. 4). She also notes successes from her tenure, including "two special editions of the leading State papers," the formation of a "Suffrage study Club" in Wilmington, the formation of leagues in Durham and Pine Bluff, a "Suffrage Booth at the State Fair" (which garnered "great publicity"), and "a speaking tour" by members and allies (p. 5). Mary Henderson, Chairman of the Legislative Committee, notes the successful passage of a bill to allow women to fill the post of Notary Public in North Carolina by the North Carolina State House Senate. The bill was declared unconstitutional by the North Carolina Supreme Court, a decision Henderson declares to be "in direct conflict with the great weight of authority in the United States" (p. 7).

The bulk of Henderson's reporting focuses on the Equal Suffrage Bill, aimed at amending the state Constitution. After collecting data from as many legislators as possible regarding their views on equal suffrage, the bill was introduced simultaneously in both houses. The public joint hearing was "packed to overflowing" and offered invaluable publicity to the Association's actions. While the ensuing defeat in both houses was "a foregone conclusion," the bill "received more votes than we expected" and served as a powerful "method of arousing public interest" (p. 9). Finding the citizens of North Carolina "friendly" and "sympathetic to the Suffrage movement but cautious about committing themselves too hurriedly," Henderson advises tabling the bill for full suffrage and urges legislators to focus on a proposed "Act to Authorize the Choice of Presidential Electors by Equal Suffrage and a Municipal Suffrage Act." Such tactics were used during widely across the country during this era (pp. 9-10).

North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter McKenzie Clark was another outspoken advocate for women's right to vote. His December 1916 address "Ballots for Both" was presented to the Equal Suffrage Association in Greenville, North Carolina, and was later published along with other pro-suffrage materials. The publication urges readers to "read carefully" and then to pass it along "to some intelligent friend" (p. 1). Clark insists that suffrage will "lift humanity to a higher level and better conditions" (p. 3). In recounting recent gains by suffragists, Clark notes that even President Woodrow Wilson changed his original stance against suffrage. He suggests that Wilson's decision to support Equal Suffrage may have been motivated both by sagacity and practicality as its support was "essential to his success" (p. 3). He calls the momentum of the movement essential to its continued success—the more women gained the vote, the more politicians realized the power of women voters, as evidenced in the election of President Wilson: "in the nonsuffrage States, where the women did not vote, Mr. Wilson's gains over the vote of four years ago averaged from nothing to 26%, but . . . in the Suffrage States his gains averaged from 76 to 126%" (p. 4). Clark uses this information to predict that in the next election, both parties will not be able to avoid "a pledge to enfranchise women," and, if the matter rises to the national level, "the demand for suffrage by amendment to the Federal Constitution will be such that the average Congressman will not risk his re-election by voting against it" (p. 4).

Clark says that women are well-suited to politics, highlighting their ability to organize and raise funds for the suffrage movement, and arguing that "the greatest obstacle to Equal suffrage outside of the money and paid orators of the liquor interests is ignorance and overconservatism" (p. 9). He also tackles some of the most common arguments against equal suffrage. Contesting the idea that allowing women to vote will increase the divorce rate, he points out that divorces have "diminished in every State that has adopted suffrage for the reason that wives are better treated" (p. 10). Responding to those who fear that women "will bring out the negro women and overwhelm us," Clark provides a statistical counter-argument: "in North Carolina the white population is 70% and the negro 30%, hence there are 50,000 more white women than all the negro men and women put together" (p. 10). In what would have been a compelling argument to many white male voters at the time, Clark thus concludes that "Equal Suffrage will strengthen and not jeopardize White Supremacy" (p. 10).

As the August 11, 1920, "Telegram to the Tennessee Legislature" demonstrates, however, some politicians were more concerned with the importance of states' rights than they were with the "value" of American women. The telegram, sent from the North Carolina House of Representatives in Raleigh, North Carolina to the General Assembly in Nashville, Tennessee, notes that the senders, "constituting a majority of said body . . . assure you that we will not ratify the Susan B. Anthony Amendment [the Amendment for Women's Suffrage]" (p. 2). The North Carolina Representatives argue that such an amendment would equate to "interfering with sovereignty of Tennessee and other States of the Union" and "respectfully request" that Tennessee also vote against the Amendment and prevent it from being "forced upon the people of North Carolina" (p. 2). The telegram is signed by 63 members of the House. When the 19th Amendment was finally put to the states for ratification, "the North Carolina legislature defeated the measure by two votes." Tennessee, however, became the 36th state to pass the Amendment, making it law. North Carolina did not formally ratify the Amendment until 1971.

The final documents summarized here demonstrate the work of the North Carolina League of Women Voters following the passage of the 19th Amendment. In their advertisement titled "Women May Now Vote," the League explains the ramifications of the 19th Amendment, noting that "women as well as men, may take part in all elections, national, state, and local, regular and special" (p. 1). The League also notes that women could vote in 1920 "without paying poll tax" but that they must register. Finally, the publication urges women to see their right as a "solemn duty" and exhorts them to "vote intelligently" (p. 1).

The League published a second small advertisement titled "Women Register and Vote," which stressed the necessity of registering to vote. Women had from "Sept. 3 to Oct. 23 inclusive" to register to vote in 1920 (p. 1). Noting that "women have proven themselves patriotic citizens in the past," the League avows that "they will contribute their best to the State and Nation now by using their vote for better government" (p. 1).

Works Consulted: Amar, Akhil Reed, "How Women Won the Vote," Wilson Quarterly 3.29, Summer 2005; Mintz, Stephen, "The Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment," Organization of American Historians (OAH) Magazine of History, July 2007, pp. 47-48.

Meredith Malburne

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