On 18 August 1920, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, which was officially proclaimed on August 26. Although Virginia’s General Assembly had twice refused to ratify when it had the opportunity in 1919 and 1920, women of the state had at last achieved the right to vote. Who were the women in Virginia who participated in this decades-long campaign?
Some names, such as Maggie L. Walker, Mary Johnston, Kate Waller Barrett or Janie Porter Barrett, might be familiar to students of Virginia history or because they were well known for their work as a banker, or a novelist, or social reformers. But thousands of Virginia women campaigned for the right to vote, some by signing a petition, subscribing to the Woman’s Journal and Suffrage News, picketing the White House, or serving as an officer in a local chapter of the Equal Suffrage League.
As part of the Library of Virginia’s commemoration of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women’s right to vote, the Dictionary of Virginia Biography undertook a project to document the lives of some of these women who have long been left out of the history books, but who deserve to be recognized for their contributions to the success of the suffrage movement among their other achievements. These biographies (and many others) can be accessed through the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Search page and also though our exhibition website. Some of the entries are also part of the Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States.
Women from all walks of life in all parts of Virginia joined the campaign for the right to vote, starting in the nineteenth century. Suffrage organizations were established in 1870 and 1893, but Virginia women weren’t ready to embrace the cause and both efforts languished.
The campaign finally took off in 1909, when socially prominent women in Richmond began discussing the issue and organized the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia in November. They jumped into their work enthusiastically, publishing articles, pamphlets, and letters to the editor in support of women’s voting rights, educating and lobbying Virginia’s legislators, holding teas and street meetings, distributing literature and petitions, writing congressmen, and participating in parades. Some women went further, and members of the Virginia branch of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, organized in 1915, picketed and protested at the White House and served time in prison in the cause of advancing woman suffrage.
All of these Virginia women were white, because their groups did not welcome African American suffragists as members. Members of the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs held a suffrage parade as part of the National Association of Colored Women’s convention, discussed voting rights at their meetings, and supported the creation of political study clubs to be prepared when voting rights were achieved. If African American women in Virginia created their own specific suffrage organization it has not yet been documented. Although the racism of most of the white suffragists blinded them to efforts of African American women, a few quietly worked with African Americans. Artists Nora Houston and Adèle Clark helped ensure that African American women in Richmond could register and get to the polls on election day in 1920, although Clark later lamented that she had not done more to help.
Many of these suffragists, white and African American, were in their forties and fifties during the 1910s and had long been involved in a variety of progressive era reform movements such as increased educational opportunities for women and girls, better public schools, improvements to public health and safety, protections for working women and children, and municipal reforms. Former teacher Rosa Dixon Bowser advocated reforms in education and the criminal justice system as well as universal suffrage. Nurse Agnes Dillon Randolph lobbied the General Assembly to improve access to health care and for the right to vote. Banker and civil rights activist Maggie L. Walker often referenced the power of the ballot in her speeches. Women’s rights activists Pauline Adams and Maud Jamison went to jail for demonstrating for voting rights. Civic leader Millie Paxton organized the Colored Women’s Republican Club of Roanoke.
Younger women early in their careers gained experience through their suffrage activism. Eudora Ramsay (later Richardson) came to Virginia as an organizer for the Equal Suffrage League and later became a prominent feminist writer. Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon, another League organizer, went on to work as an economist for the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor. Ora Brown Stokes organized voter registration drives for African American women and later worked for civil rights through the National Association of Colored Women and the local NAACP. One of the Equal Suffrage League’s most effective spokeswomen was Lucy Randolph Mason, who went on to become a significant labor organizer in the South.
Women all over the state were involved in the movement. The Equal Suffrage League organized local chapters from Chincoteague on the Eastern Shore to Big Stone Gap in the Appalachian Mountains and had more than 20,000 members. Leagues in urban areas like Norfolk, Richmond, Lynchburg, and Roanoke were particularly active, but those in smaller towns like Williamsburg, Staunton, Bedford, and Wytheville also thrived with the leadership of local officers like Fannie King, Eugénie Yancey, or Ellie Putney. Most counties had one or more local leagues, but they often shared the same problem the Bath County Equal Suffrage League reported in 1914, in that its members were “hard working country women, living far apart, with little time of their own.” Although the Virginia branch of the National Woman’s Party had fewer than a thousand members, they were particularly active in Richmond, Norfolk, and northern Virginia.
The Equal Suffrage League first focused its efforts on amending Virginia’s constitution to enfranchise women, although some of its members later organized the Virginia branch of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (later the National Woman’s Party) to amend the U.S. Constitution, which they believed was the quickest and most direct route to universal suffrage. Members of the two groups shared the same goal of winning the right to vote, but they pursued very different strategies.
The Equal Suffrage League focused on education and persuasion, while the National Woman’s Party embraced confrontational methods of protest. Leaders of the Equal Suffrage League, including president Lila Meade Valentine and vice presidents Jessie Townsend and Elizabeth Lewis, and most other league officers, generally conformed to traditional gender conventions to make their case for woman suffrage. They stressed the importance of not significantly transgressing against the acceptable code of conduct for white ladies in Virginia.
Leaders of the Virginia National Woman’s Party, including chairman Sophie G. Meredith, vice chairman Elizabeth Otey, and congressional chairman Mary M. Lockwood worked within a national political context and for the most part with a national audience. They acted more boldly, either from natural inclination or from necessity, and more readily embraced more radical gender politics. Almost all of the white suffragists, however, upheld Virginia’s racial discrimination and segregation, ignoring African American suffragists who would have joined the public fight.
Women wanted the vote for a variety of reasons: they had their own interests to protect, they paid taxes, they believed it would help them achieve needed social reforms. But for many, it came down to the simple belief that women were citizens entitled to the same rights as men under the law, and that included the right to vote. “When victory really came” in August 1920, Equal Suffrage League secretary Edith Clark Cowles could hardly believe that “we had overnight become people and would count in the general run of matters.”
Learn more about 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.