In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Library of Virginia is excited to announce that the records of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia are now available online through the Library’s catalog. The Equal Suffrage League was founded in 1909 by about two dozen prominent white women in Richmond. They spent the next decade advocating first for an amendment to the state constitution and later for an amendment to the U. S. Constitution that would guarantee women’s right to vote. At a time when most Virginians—women as well as men—opposed woman suffrage, the league’s members steadily built support for women’s voting rights. How they accomplished their work is documented in the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia Records that were saved and collected by former league secretary Ida Mae Thompson and donated to the Virginia State Library (as the Library of Virginia was then known) in the 1940s. Learn more about the ESL collection in this 2019 blog post.
The digitization of the Equal Suffrage League Records (Accession 22002) was part of the Library’s commemoration of the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote. The digital collection (about 10,000 pages) focuses on the materials created by members of the Equal Suffrage League, as well as some documents from the early years of the Virginia League of Women Voters. The collection includes correspondence between officers and with local ESL chapters, meeting minutes, state convention minutes and programs, news bulletins, broadsides and pamphlets, financial records, membership lists, and local chapter information. 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 in the Archives Reading Room at the Library. Issues of the short-lived Virginia Suffrage News are available in Virginia Chronicle.
There are various ways to get to the Equal Suffrage League records online. The most direct way is to view the online collection, which is now available as part of the Library’s Digital Collections Discovery. Thanks to the work of many volunteers who transcribed thousands of pages, there are also transcriptions available for the digitized documents. You can perform a full-text search of these transcriptions via the keyword search in the online collection view (from within each of the series subcollections). The catalog record for the original, physical collection contains a link to the collection’s finding aid, which lists the contents of all of the boxes and folders. In cases where the items in a folder have been digitized, the finding aid contains a link to those digital images (which cover every item in the folder, unless otherwise noted).
This collection (and the Equal Suffrage League materials in the Adèle Clark Papers at Virginia Commonwealth University) is key to documenting the work of the Equal Suffrage League, but it is only part of the story. The suffrage movement in Virginia split and a smaller group of militant white women willing to challenge the status quo created the Virginia branch of what became the National Woman’s Party. Both of these groups, however, discriminated against Black women, who were not permitted to join these organizations. Black suffragists in Virginia are not known to have created their own organization, although they were strong advocates for voting rights through their local women’s clubs and the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.
A sampling of Equal Suffrage League documents
Equal Suffrage League officers traveled across Virginia to make speeches and organize local chapters.
Lynchburg league president Elizabeth Langhorne Lewis was a popular speaker and this broadside advertises her speech at the Giles County courthouse on June 27, 1916. An account of her speech was published in the Pearisburg Virginian, July 6, 1916.
(Accession 22002, box 31, folder 7)
The Equal Suffrage League printed a variety of broadsides such as this one developed by the National American Woman Suffrage Association. These were passed out at suffrage booths at state and local fairs, at meetings, public speeches, and other events in order to educate Virginians about the importance of voting rights for women.
(Accession 22002, box 7, folder 31)
An undated list of members of the Equal Suffrage League in various towns of Accomack County. Note that the married women are generally listed by the names of their husbands as was common at the time. The ESL collection doesn’t include membership lists for all local leagues, but there are lists of officers for many localities.
(Accession 22002, box 12, folder 1)
The Equal Suffrage League collection includes correspondence from 1909 to the 1930s. Much of it is between officers of the state and local leagues, but it also includes items like this 1913 request for information about woman suffrage and the ESL sent to the ESL headquarters by Angelyn Alexander, who was then a thirteen-year-old student in Chase City according to the census.
(Accession 22002, box 1, folder 11)
After the Equal Suffrage League stopped printing the short-lived Virginia Suffrage News, the state league sent regular bulletins to local chapters to keep members up to date on the League’s work.
(Accession 22002, box 7, folder 18)
In 1936 and 1937, former ESL secretary Ida Mae Thompson wrote to past officers of the Equal Suffrage League chapters in order to collect meeting minutes, printed materials, correspondence, or any other items to help document suffrage activity in Virginia “so that later a history of the movement can be written.” She later donated the collection to the Virginia State Library.
(Accession 22002, box 15, folder 33)
These sashes, ribbons, and badges belonged to Norfolk suffragist Jessie Townsend, who attended conventions of national suffrage organizations and the League of Women Voters. The meeting minutes, correspondence, recording books of the secretary and treasurer, as well as other items that she provided to Ida Mae Thompson document the work of the Norfolk Equal Suffrage League.
(Accession 22002, box 30)