After Tennessee ratified the Nineteenth Amendment in August 1920, Virginia women began registering to vote. As a result of the “Machinery Bill” passed by the General Assembly in March 1920, Virginia women were able to pay their poll tax and register for the 1920 election even though the deadline had already passed. Equal Suffrage League of Virginia secretary Ida Mae Thompson wrote enthusiastically on 24 August that “The ‘Machine’ here in Richmond has informed us that it is ready to register our women at once . . . and we hope that the powers that be in other parts of the State will be equally as helpful.” White and African American women immediately began organizing meetings to prepare women for the registration process. Some women were so excited that they didn’t wait for the formal opening of registration on 2 September 1920—Isabelle E. Baker and Frances W. Beverley registered in Winchester on 27 August.
What did registering to vote entail in 1920? First, a woman had to pay her poll tax. Virginia’s General Assembly had enacted and repealed poll taxes in the decades after the Civil War to limit voting by African American men. The poll tax became part of the state constitution in 1902, and as a result almost all African American men and many poor white men were disfranchised. The poll tax was $1.50 each year, and voters had to stay current for three years; if a voter missed paying one year, they would then have to pay for three years at once. The amount doesn’t sound like a lot today, but many people earned less than $100 a month and $1.50 (or $4.50 for three years) was not insignificant. Women were allowed to register as new voters, which meant that they had to pay only $1.50 in 1920.
After paying the poll tax at the treasurer’s office, the prospective voter had to take her receipt to the local registrar’s office. Some registrars helpfully provided evening hours for women, but others were less accommodating.
In Henrico County, Anne Harris and her sister reported that they traveled ten miles to the courthouse, but “to our chagrin and disappointment, we were told that we could not register except on Wednesdays and Saturdays from nine to two.” And more than one registrar in Virginia resigned, including one in Louisa County who reportedly “expressed his heartfelt disgust at the action of the Tennessee legislature.”
Lucie Christian Scott, who worked as an embalmer in Richmond, made notes about the specific information she had to provide: her name, her birthdate and age, her occupation, her address and length residence in the state, her precinct, and at her home. This was written on the reverse of the oath was left inside the register for Lee Ward, Sixth Precinct, Richmond City Election Records, Library of Virginia.
At the registrar’s office, each woman had to sign an oath that she was not disqualified from voting for any reason. She had to provide personal information, including age, occupation, address, and length of residence. Some women were not thrilled at the prospect of giving their age. In Bedford County, Rosalie B. Kelsey refused to do so, acknowledging only that she was over twenty-one. The registrar could see that. “As a matter of fact,” he noted in his request to the state attorney general for advice on how to proceed, “she is supposed to be about 75.” The attorney general advised the registrar to give Kelsey one more chance to comply. Registrars would sometimes help white women by providing a sheet of paper that outlined all the requested information on it. But African American women didn’t receive such prompts. If a woman couldn’t provide the details from memory, the registrar could turn her away and her poll tax was not refunded.
Many women were daunted by the prospect of registering to vote, so some tried to demystify the process. Amy Werth Osborne, whose husband owned a towboat company in Norfolk, related her experience in the Virginian-Pilot‘s Woman Forum: “First, I went to the assessor’s office on the second floor of the Armory Building, across the hall to the city treasurer’s office, where I paid my poll tax. . . and then to the registrar’s office on the first floor. It only took fifteen minutes and each official was most courteous.” She went on to inform potential voters that “there is no examination, oral or written, as so many women fear, but a few questions are put about our local form of government, all the simple things that we know or read about daily in the papers.” Her perspective was that of a well-off white woman, however.
Although there was no official “examination,” Virginia’s constitution and laws required applicants to give correct answers to any questions the registrar asked about a person’s qualifications to register. Democratic registrars (Virginia’s government was then controlled by the conservative Democratic Party) regularly and without any specific legal authority asked all kinds of questions, particularly to disqualify Republican and African American voters.
The NAACP sent field agent Addie Waites Hunton to Hampton, where she documented the experiences of African American women. On the first night registration was open, Hampton teacher Caroline Smith Isham was given a blank sheet of paper to fill out with the required personal information and was asked numerous questions, including “How many people does it take to make a county?” She asked the registrar why she was being asked so many questions when the white teachers registered in just a few minutes. Whereupon the registrar sent her home. She returned a couple days later with her friend Annie Pride Washington, the wife of the commandant of cadets at Hampton Institute. According to Addie Hunton’s report, the clerk was courteous to Annie Washington because he believed that she was a white woman. But because she was with Caroline Isham, he asked for the name of Mrs. Washington’s husband, with the result that “his attitude changed. He boldly told Mrs. Washington that he did not intend to be bothered with a lot of colored women. They intended to just let a few register.” Annie Washington and Caroline Isham were eventually able to register, but only because they persisted.
Addie Hunton believed that there were about 1,000 to 1,200 African American women in Elizabeth City County who were eligible to register, but she estimated that only about fifty actually did so, even though far more paid their poll tax. She wasn’t far off—according to the Newport News Daily Press, 83 African American women in Hampton and Elizabeth City County registered in September 1920.
In Richmond, Maggie Walker and Ora Brown Stokes organized a successful voter registration drive that enabled more than 2,000 African American women to register, although it was a fraction of the more than 10,000 white women who registered in the city. The line at the registrar’s office in city hall was not segregated at first, but the large numbers of African American women—some of whom were left waiting for hours—led city officials to create a separate office for them in the basement. When an electoral board official noticed that the line was thinning out one day, he commented to Ora Stokes that they wouldn’t have to turn away too many African American women. She quickly retorted that “there’s more to come. I’ve got them lined up in Jackson Ward waiting for the word.” Walker and Stokes both offered their services to help register women more quickly, but they were turned down.
Although far fewer African American women registered to vote overall, misleading newspaper headlines stoked fears that they outnumbered white women. As a result, Mary Williams, president of the Virginia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, made public appeals for white women to register even if they had previously opposed votes for women. Some anti-suffragists did, although Williams waited until 1921 to register. Men also urged white women to register. In Loudoun County, Ada Alexander told Chloe Bly, a member of the Equal Suffrage League of Leesburg, that “the funny thing about it is that the men who have opposed us for years, and who now want public office, are the ones who quite brazenly urge upon us the duty of getting the women registered!”
Between 75,000 and 100,000 women registered to vote in Virginia during this thirty-day period in 1920. Women in urban areas registered at higher rates than those in rural parts of the state, and white women outnumbered African American women everywhere. Young women who had just turned twenty-one (the age minimum at the time) and women in their eighties registered. An anonymous woman in Norfolk described the “wonderful feeling” of being a “full-fledged voter” after leaving the registrar’s office. It gave her a sense of power to be “really and truly a citizen of the United States of America and not just a make believe.” While less than fifteen percent of the total eligible population of women registered, that is not surprising since Virginia’s politicians had designed a system to ensure a small electorate. As the Virginian-Pilot and Norfolk Landmark conceded at the close of the registration period, the numbers indicated that “the women actually did ‘want the ballot’ and that a goodly portion of their number is not going to be slow in taking advantage of ‘the say’ it gives them in public affairs.”
The Nineteenth Amendment meant that millions of American women could participate in electoral politics, although for women of color it was a step in a much longer fight to secure their voting rights. And some Americans continue to face obstacles in freely exercising their right to vote. The Nineteenth Amendment is one of many milestones in the campaigns for women’s equality and universal suffrage.
The Library’s exhibition, We Demand: Women’s Suffrage in Virginia, has reopened and has been extended until March 31, 2021. The Library is currently open Tuesday through Friday, 10:00am−4:00pm. Visit the We Demand website for more suffrage resources, or 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.