The Library of Virginia is excited to make the records of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia available in Making History: Transcribe. As part of our 2020 commemoration of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women’s right to vote, the Library is asking volunteers to help transcribe these records that document women’s campaign for the vote in Virginia.
In the autumn of 1936, Ida Mae Thompson sent out a plea to former members of the Equal Suffrage League: “We have the opportunity through the Historical Records Survey, a WPA project, of collecting and classifying for permanent preservation all available materials on woman suffrage in our State.” Thompson specifically asked for “minutes, samples of pamphlets or fliers or other printed matter including newspaper clippings, or information that workers may remember, etc.” She stressed that “ANY data” documenting the woman suffrage movement in Virginia was desirable so that its history could eventually be written.
Almost thirty years earlier, in November 1909, a small group of prominent Richmond women had founded the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia. They spent the next decade advocating first for an amendment to the state constitution and later for an amendment to the United States Constitution that would guarantee women’s right to vote. The league’s members were all white women (and some men) and they did not advocate for African American women’s right to vote, which would not come for another forty-four years. Equal Suffrage League president Lila Meade Valentine, novelist Mary Johnston, and others traveled around the state organizing local leagues, and within five years they established 98 chapters in 81 counties and had more than 9,000 members. Without Ida Mae Thompson’s efforts to collect and preserve materials related to the Equal Suffrage League, the story of this pivotal point in Virginia’s history would lack primary documentation.
Janetta R. FitzHugh, founding president of the Equal Suffrage League of Fredericksburg, apologized for being “unable to furnish any data” about her league. She wrote that she had “kept many such things as you ask for” about the work in Fredericksburg, “but finally, being pressed for room to retain such matter—destroyed them all.” Her reply to Thompson’s request was common among the respondents, but fortunately, other women had materials and memories that they were able to share.
In Essex County, Thompson’s letter reached Lila Ware and Mattie Blakey. They both responded with lengthy accounts of suffrage work there. Blakey recalled how Lila Meade Valentine had “won over some opponents” who disapproved of “so radical a movement as Woman’s Suffrage.” Ware described circulating literature, interviewing local and state officials, and writing members of Congress about the issue. League members “argued with the men and made ourselves unpopular and generally disagreeable I suppose…yet we kept right on.”
A few women, such as Equal Suffrage League of Norfolk president Jessie Townsend, kept many documents detailing their activity and were willing to share them. After receiving Thompson’s letter, Townsend “got to work immediately,” contacting other former suffragists that she knew. She also “went to work on the suffragist chest” at her home to sort through her collections of correspondence, newspaper clippings, and other items. Eventually Townsend sent Thompson a large number of letters and documents, a short history of the local league, and a few of Townsend’s own personal papers.
The materials collected by Ida Mae Thompson, as well as the office documents that she had retained as headquarters secretary of the Equal Suffrage League, make up the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia Records (Acc. 22002) at the Library of Virginia. The collection contains 13.5 cubic feet in 31 boxes and includes correspondence, meeting minutes, state convention programs, annual reports, financial records, news bulletins, pamphlets and broadsides, pledge cards, records from local chapters, communications with members of the General Assembly, and other league material, as well as published materials of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the League of Women Voters, and other organizations.
The collection preserves information about the founding of most of the 145 known local leagues in the state. Without this collection (and the Equal Suffrage League materials in the Adèle Clark Papers at Virginia Commonwealth University), the campaign for woman suffrage in Virginia would be difficult to document. There are no complete membership lists, although correspondence mentions numerous women, as do minutes and reports, and local chapter information. As was common at the time, records identify most of the married or widowed women only by the names of their husbands.
The Library of Virginia has digitized about half of the collection (approximately 10,000 pages), focusing on the materials created by members of the Equal Suffrage League, as well as some materials from the early years of the Virginia League of Women Voters. Published materials of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the national League of Women Voters, and other organizations have not been digitized as part of this online collection, although they are available for use at the Library. Issues of the short-lived Virginia Suffrage News are available in Virginia Chronicle.
The Library of Virginia will be commemorating the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification in 2020 with a year-long exhibition, We Demand: Woman Suffrage in Virginia, and the publication of The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia (Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2020). The Library is also documenting the lives of numerous Virginia suffragists with entries in our online Dictionary of Virginia Biography.
The Equal Suffrage League records will be available for transcription starting on Saturday, 24 August 2019 during Making History: Transcribe’s 5th annual Transcribe-aversary. You are invited to join us for a day of archival insights, tips on reading old handwriting, and birthday cake! Information and sign up at bit.ly/LVAvolunteer.
— Mari Julienne, editor, Dictionary of Virginia Biography