Thousands of Virginia women joined the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia to fight for their voting rights after it was organized in 1909. A few Virginia women thought that the League wasn’t making progress quickly enough, so on 10 June 1915, they organized the Virginia branch of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage.
Among the speakers at the organizing meeting, held at Richmond’s elegant Jefferson Hotel, was Congressional Union founder Alice Paul, who believed that public activism and protest was key to keeping the issue of woman suffrage at the forefront of people’s minds. Several of the CU’s founding officers had been among the founders and early members of the Equal Suffrage League, including Virginia Congressional Union chair Sophie Meredith, vice chairs Pauline Adams and Elizabeth Otey, and secretary Marion Read.
Sophie Meredith founded the Virginia branch because she thought that it would be impossible to convince a majority of the male voters in Virginia to support woman suffrage and ratify a state amendment. Instead, she wanted to convince Virginia’s congressmen to support the federal suffrage amendment (known generally as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment) and “hasten the day” when women would “be able to take our place in the world.”
Raised with the Quaker value of gender equality, Meredith believed that women desired a country “of freedom, justice and true democracy, where all the people, not one-half the people, make the laws that we must all live under.” Like the Equal Suffrage League, however, the Virginia Congressional Union did not allow African American women members, and African American suffragists were forced to remain on the sidelines of the campaign in Virginia.
Virginia’s Congressional Union members immediately began holding street meetings in Richmond, sometimes on corners opposite to members of the Equal Suffrage League, which publicly condemned the “methods and policies” of the new organization. Despite having the same goal of voting rights for women, the two organizations disagreed about strategies. League members believed that a campaign of persuasion and education would convince state legislators to authorize woman suffrage. However, the process of amending the state constitution would take at least two and half years, and the Congressional Union argued that direct action in support of the Anthony Amendment, which required ratification by thirty-six states, would more quickly achieve voting rights for all American women.
Having been warned that it was “not safe to speak of the federal amendment, enfranchising women, above a whisper” in Virginia, national organizer Mabel Vernon nonetheless reported “enthusiastic crowds” in Richmond shortly after the Virginia Congressional Union was founded. Sophie Meredith and other officers held numerous street meetings in 1915 and members staffed booths at the state fair. During the 1916 fair, they paid “America’s Daring Girl Aviator” Katharine Stinson to drop suffrage leaflets over the midway during one of her daily airshows. Wherever they gathered, the Virginia Congressional Union members carried their colorful banners of purple (representing loyalty to their cause), white (purity), and gold (light leading the way).
Virginians participated in parades and public presentations of petitions to Congress and President Woodrow Wilson. They held public meetings with Virginia members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, who were almost unanimously opposed to the Anthony Amendment. Virginia Congressional Union vice chairman Elizabeth Otey described the attitudes that suffragists hoped to overcome when she recounted her group’s visit to Representative Carter Glass. He had informed the women that he would never support a federal suffrage amendment after the “disastrous results” of the Fifteenth Amendment, which had guaranteed the voting rights of African American men after the Civil War. Otey explained in The Suffragist (the Congressional Union’s weekly paper) that “our difficulty” in Virginia is that “our people do not honestly believe in democracy. They do not think the people ought to rule.”
The Civil War and its aftermath was never far from the minds of white Virginia politicians, many of whom had been part of the state government’s successful efforts to disfranchise most African American men at the start of the twentieth century. These men feared that a woman suffrage amendment to the United States Constitution containing almost the same language as the Fifteenth Amendment, empowering Congress “to enforce the provisions of this article,” would lead to the end of white political control in Virginia. Despite such forceful opposition to a federal amendment, members of the Virginia Congressional Union kept up the pressure, writing letters, sending telegrams, and sending groups to lobby congressmen at their offices. Undeterred when congressmen sometimes skipped scheduled meetings, the women didn’t hesitate to drive out to their homes instead. The Equal Suffrage League finally shifted its focus to advocating for the Anthony Amendment rather than a state amendment, although its members remained committed to persuasion instead of confrontation and urged Virginia women to not divide their forces by joining the Virginia Congressional Union.
Women picketing the White House, carrying banners quoting Woodrow Wilson's statements on democracy.
The quotes were mean to highlight Wilson's hypocrisy in opposing a woman suffrage amendment while at the same time arguing that the first world war was necessary to preserve the right to democracy abroad. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.
By 1917, Alice Paul and the Congressional Union had developed more dramatic methods to attract public attention to the suffrage cause, including daily picket lines of suffragists at the White House. These protests became the public face of the suffrage movement. Some Virginia women didn’t shy away from public protests—stay tuned for a future blog post highlighting their willingness to face hostility, arrest, and even imprisonment.
The Congressional Union, which was renamed the National Woman’s Party in 1917, never attracted a large membership in Virginia. At its height during the suffrage fight, the Virginia National Woman’s Party had about 600 members, while the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia had more than 20,000. Even though they disagreed about strategy, both groups were correct about the outcome of the federal amendment in Virginia. The Equal Suffrage League recognized that the General Assembly would not ratify the amendment, which it refused to do in 1919 and 1920 after Congress had voted to send the Nineteenth Amendment to the states for ratification. The Virginia National Woman’s Party was also correct, however, in understanding that a federal amendment would accomplish woman suffrage more effectively than convincing each state to separately allow women to vote.
Tensions between the two groups remained even after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920. When members of the Equal Suffrage League began to document the suffrage fight in Virginia, they largely ignored the contributions of the Virginia branch of the National Woman’s Party. Fortunately, Sophie Meredith’s family preserved the minute book of the Virginia Congressional Union, thereby helping document the work of this “militant sisterhood.” Almost all Virginia suffragists, however, have been left out of Virginia’s history books, but they deserve to be recognized for their accomplishments.
Learn more about these remarkable women and the suffrage movement in the Library of Virginia’s book The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia (The History Press, 2020), which is available from The Virginia Shop. The Library’s exhibition, We Demand: Women’s Suffrage in Virginia, is currently closed to help contain the spread of covid-19, but please visit the We Demand website for more suffrage resources.
-Mari Julienne, co-author of The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia.