The first and largest of the state organizations that worked for woman suffrage in Virginia early in the twentieth century was the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia. About twenty white Richmond women founded the league in November 1909, “to secure the suffrage for women on equal terms with men.” Within ten years they organized more than 140 local leagues from Chincoteague to Big Stone Gap, and recruited more than 20,000 members statewide. It was the largest woman’s organization in the state to that time. Suffrage advocates lived in every county, city, and town, although leagues in cities were usually more active than leagues in small towns and rural areas, where members were often “hard working country women, living far apart, with little time of their own,” as the secretary of the Bath County league pointed out in her 1914 report.

All of the members of the Equal Suffrage League were white, but not all members were women. Lyon G. Tyler, president of the College of William and Mary, was a founder of the league in Williamsburg, Mayor Wyndham R. Mayo served as a vice president of the league in Norfolk in 1915 and 1916, and several influential political leaders in the state supported votes for women.

The officers of the league included several very well-known women who were involved in the social reforms of the time, collectively known as the Progressive movement. These were women like Lila Meade Valentine and Edith Clark Cowles, who advocated improvements to public education; Kate Waller Barrett and Sarah Harvie Wormeley, who worked to expand public health programs; Fannie Bayly King and Eugenia Jobson who worked to expand community social services; and labor activists Lillie Barbour and Lucy Randolph Mason, who fought for laws to limit work days for women and children. They understood that the vote would give them more political influence and a better chance to achieve their other goals. And most of them believed or came to believe that the right to vote was an essential aspect of citizenship that women were entitled to. The patriotic rhetoric of World War I—the war to make the world safe for democracy—strengthened that belief, and may have drawn more women and men into support of woman suffrage.

The Equal Suffrage League published leaflets and pamphlets to refute arguments that woman suffrage would “constitute a menace to white supremacy.” Equal Suffrage League of Virginia Records, Accession 22002, Library of Virginia.

African American women, like social worker Janie Porter Barrett and community activist Rosa Dixon Bowser, also understood the importance of the ballot and advocated woman suffrage, but the Equal Suffrage League did not acknowledge their efforts or allow them to be members. When anti-suffragists argued that woman suffrage would threaten white supremacy by allowing African American women to vote, the Equal Suffrage League explained that Virginia’s white politicians had disfranchised most African American men and could do the same to African American women.

In the beginning, officers and members of the league lobbied members of the General Assembly for a woman suffrage amendment to the state constitution. They collected signatures on petitions to submit to the assembly, made suffrage speeches at county courthouses on court day, staffed booths at the state and county fairs, and lectured in movie theaters, at schools, in churches, and on street corners to educate the public and develop support for woman suffrage. The Equal Suffrage League also printed postcards and published leaflets and pamphlets by its members that were distributed across the state. The league focused on education and persuasion and opposed the more radical protests of the National Woman’s Party.

By 1917, after the National American Woman Suffrage Association endorsed what was called the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, the Equal Suffrage League shifted its work toward persuading Virginia’s senators and congressmen to vote for a woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Neither of the two senators ever voted for woman suffrage, and only one of the state’s ten congressmen did, C. Bascom Slemp (R) from southwestern Virginia.

Congress submitted a suffrage amendment to the states in June 1919. The Equal Suffrage League prepared to lobby the General Assembly for ratification of it. League members collected information on all members of the House of Delegates detailing their opinions on woman suffrage. They interviewed legislators and reviewed voting records to document how legislators had voted when the assembly had rejected woman suffrage in 1912, 1914, and 1916. The League’s careful tracking of legislators’ actions and views persuaded them that they should press for ratification at the 1920 regular session of the General Assembly rather than at a special session that the governor called for other purposes in August 1919. They were correct; in 1919 both houses of the assembly refused to ratify the amendment to the federal constitution.

On its letterhead, the Equal Suffrage League highlighted states where women had the right to vote and where they did not. Equal Suffrage League of Virginia Records, Accession 22002, Library of Virginia.

In February 1920 both houses defeated the federal amendment again, but in March both houses passed, by large majorities, a bill to enable women to register and vote if the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. Both houses also finally proposed a woman suffrage amendment to the state constitution. The Equal Suffrage League had achieved its original objective, although it was too late to make any difference; the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in August 1920 and all American women won the right to vote.

The records of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia have been preserved in the Library of Virginia since 1941, thanks to the efforts of its former secretary Ida Mae Thompson. In addition to preserving documents from the office of the Equal Suffrage League headquarters, she also wrote former suffrage activists and league members asking them to share any materials, memorabilia, or their recollections of the suffrage movement in Virginia. The Equal Suffrage League of Virginia Records are one of the largest state suffrage collections in the country. They have been digitized and will be part of the Library’s digital collections. Currently the records are part of Making History: Transcribe, where volunteers can help us make these records more accessible by transcribing the scanned documents.

We Demand: Women’s Suffrage in Virginia is the Library of Virginia’s exhibition commemorating the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, and is scheduled to be on view at the Library through December 5, 2020. (NOTE: the Library is temporarily closed to the public to help contain the spread of COVID-19. Please check the main website for updates on the closure status.)

The Library’s accompanying book, The Campaign for Woman Suffrage, is available for purchase from The Virginia Shop.

A traveling exhibition will be on view at local libraries and historical societies around the state. See the schedule here. (NOTE: This schedule is also subject to change due to the COVID-19 response. Please check with the contact listed on the traveling exhibition page for further information.)

This exhibition is a project of the Task Force to Commemorate the Centennial Anniversary of Women’s Right to Vote.

–Brent Tarter and Mari Julienne, co-authors of The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia


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