The road to Nashville, Tennessee — where the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment” cleared its final hurdle on Aug. 18, 1920 — began in Seneca Falls, New York, seven decades earlier. At the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments was signed by 68 women and 32 men, concluding, “Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country … and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.”
National women’s rights conventions followed in 1850 and were held annually through 1860, and leaders like Stanton were initially allied with the abolitionist movement. Sojourner Truth, a former slave, spoke to a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, delivering a speech known as “Ain’t I a Woman?”
“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them,” she is quoted as saying.
The movement was halted temporarily by the Civil War. A setback came in 1868, when the states ratified the 14th Amendment, which defined "citizens" and "voters" exclusively as male.
In 1869 Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the New York-based National Woman Suffrage Association to secure a nationwide right to vote via a Constitutional amendment. In the same year, Lucy Stone and other “more conservative activists,” according to the National Women’s History Museum, established the American Woman Suffrage Association to achieve the vote via individual state constitutions. The two associations would merge in 1890.
More women’s organizations were formed in the following decades, with many supporting the suffrage cause. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which is still active today, formed in 1874 to oppose alcohol and its influence on families and society, and with Frances Willard at the helm, women’s suffrage was added to the group’s platform. This led to opposition to the women’s suffrage movement by liquor and brewery interests.
A women’s suffrage amendment was introduced in Congress for the first time in 1878 and brought to a vote in 1887, when it was defeated 16-34 by the Republican-controlled Senate.
New Century, New Tactics
Organized efforts emerged to deter women’s suffrage, including the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, established in 1911.
1913 ushered in an era of greater visibility for the suffrage movement, due in large part to the efforts of Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party, who employed tactics such as parades and picketing outside of the White House to attract national publicity to the cause. In 1915, 40,000 people marched in a New York City suffrage parade, with many women dressed in white and carrying signs indicating the states they represented. Described by some as militant or radical, the group’s efforts at times resulted in women being arrested and thrown in jail. In 1917, Paul was placed in solitary confinement in the mental ward of a prison, according to the National Women’s History Museum, and picketers sentenced to jail for obstructing sidewalk traffic went on hunger strike, ultimately resulting in their release due to a public outcry.
Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a Republican, became the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916, and that year, President Woodrow Wilson announced that the Democratic Party platform would support suffrage. By that time, Europe had been entrenched in World War I for several years, and the U.S. would enter the war in 1917. In contrast to the Civil War, however, the women’s movement did not go on hiatus. Instead, suffragists were active in organizing and fundraising for the war effort — and they made their efforts known to the public, which ultimately aided their cause.
An article by Mrs. James Lee Laidlaw, of the New York State Woman Suffrage Party, was published in the June 13, 1918, Watauga Democrat under the headline “Suffragists in War Work.”
“The New York State Woman Suffrage Party, since it finished its great task of carrying New York state for woman suffrage, Nov. 6, 1917, has devoted itself exclusively to war work and various forms of civic and patriotic service. We have recently sent the first woman’s hospital unit abroad from the United States. Every person in it, even to the plumbers and mechanics, are women, and they volunteered for dangerous service.” She appealed directly to rural women, encouraging anyone interested in the party’s work to write to the organization.
On Jan. 10, 1918, Rankin opened debate on a suffrage amendment in the House.
“As never before the nation needs its women — needs the work of their hands and their hearts and their minds,” Rankin said on the House floor. “How shall we answer their challenge, gentlemen; how shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?”
The amendment would go on to pass in the House by a 274-136 vote. In a Sept. 30, 1918, speech to the Senate, President Wilson said, “We have made partners of the women in this war … shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”
But the amendment failed to win the required two-thirds majority in the Democratic-led Senate that year, and it would be the following year, 1919, when both the Republican-controlled House and Senate passed the bill that would send the amendment to the states for ratification. The suffragists’ efforts moved to securing the 36 states needed to approve a Constitutional amendment, and on Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee became the final state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment, which states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Suffragists and Anti-Suffragists in NC
The women’s suffrage movement in North Carolina has roots in the mountains. The North Carolina Equal Suffrage Association was established by 45 women and men in Asheville in 1894, according to an article by Caroline Pruden in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina. State Sen. James L. Hyatt of Yancey County introduced a bill for a state suffrage amendment in 1897, but, the article stated, “reflecting the sentiment of his colleagues,” it was referred to the Committee on Insane Asylums, where it died.
As it did across the nation, the movement picked up steam in North Carolina in 1913. That year, Gertrude Weil founded the North Carolina Equal Suffrage League in Charlotte, which lobbied legislators and spread the word through pamphlets and speeches. The article describes Weil, the daughter of a German Jewish immigrant, as “one of the South’s ‘new women’ who had acquired some postsecondary education, participated in a range of club activities and enjoyed paid working experiences as the region began to modernize.”
Records show that the movement was being discussed and debated in Watauga County as well. In the Oct. 23, 1913, issue of The Watauga Democrat, a weekly column called “At the Training School” (referring to the Appalachian Training School for Teachers, the predecessor of Appalachian State University), reported on the school’s annual October outing. “The usual debate was given at 11:30 on Saturday, the subject being ‘Resolved that woman suffrage should be adopted by an amendment to the Constitution of North Carolina,’” the newspaper stated. “The debate was very interesting.”
A Nov. 17, 1913, diary entry by Andrew Jackson Greene, an instructor at the Training School, indicated that he was not won over by the movement at the time. “We have given the woman suffrage movement some thought tonight,” Greene wrote. “We think that it is better for the women not to have it for three reasons. 1. It would thrust a burdensome responsibility upon the women. 2. It would impair the family relations. 3. It would injure the state.”
“Prior to 1920,” an article in the Oct. 24, 1935, Watauga Democrat explained, “women had been granted the right to vote in 22 states, beginning with Wyoming.” But in North Carolina, legislative defeats continued through 1919, and during the year of ratification, opposition intensified. Anti-suffragists, led by representatives from agricultural counties, “feared that allowing women to vote would increase pressure to reverse laws that prevented African Americans from voting,” Pruden wrote.
A branch of the Southern Rejection League formed in Raleigh, assisted by the National Association Opposed to Women's Suffrage. Raleigh men organized the States' Rights Defense League.
“The state's anti-suffrage movement derived its strongest support from politicians eager to retain the control they had obtained after Reconstruction,” Pruden’s article stated. “The textile mill industry, which feared the impact of women's votes on child labor issues, and railroad officials, who worried that women would target them in the progressive attack on corruption in big business.”
When it came down to one state left to ratify, special sessions were called in the North Carolina and Tennessee legislatures to take up the issue.
“President Wilson sent (N.C. Gov. Thomas) Bickett a telegram urging ratification, but the governor responded with the hope that Tennessee, then also meeting in a special convention, would relieve the pressure on North Carolina by being the 36th and final state to vote for ratification,” Pruden recounted.
A day after Tennessee voted to ratify, “the (N.C.) General Assembly still rejected the measure by a vote of 71 to 41, arguing that women suffrage would threaten the sanctity of the family, state rights and white supremacy,” Pruden wrote.
‘It Has Just Begun’
After ratification, suffragist organizations were converted into Leagues of Women Voters, focusing on voter registration, voter education and political organizing. An article from the Raleigh News & Observer reprinted in the Dec. 4, 1924, Watauga Democrat, titled “Miss Henderson Says Women Are Becoming Party Factors,” suggested that women in North Carolina quickly found new roles in politics.
“Women have not had much direct influence on politics yet, because they haven’t had time, but with every election they are becoming more informed and intelligent, and if the men expect to hold the woman’s vote they have got to begin to realize that she is an active factor in the politics of the state,” Mary Henderson, state Democratic vice chair, was quoted as saying.
“As for women holding office in general,” Henderson said, “the men need not be afraid that they are going to grab for all the offices. But they do expect a share in the policy shaping.”
“In 1920 and 1922 the men were terrified,” Henderson continued. “Fully half of them felt that the women were going to want every office in the county, and we had some difficulty in 1922, getting women to head up the work in the counties, because the men were appointing them, and the men were afraid of them. I received letters from the chairmen in some counties where I knew there were several good women who could do the work, saying that they just couldn’t find women who could do the work.”
“This time it has been much easier, for the men have softened a great deal, and have realized what the woman’s vote is meaning. This year there have been good organizations of women in 80 counties, in 15 there have been women at work without county organization, and in only five counties, to my knowledge, have the women done nothing.”
“We found that the women got into the work easily because of the war work that they had done with the Red Cross, the Liberty Loan drives, and the Canteen and relief works. In many counties war committees were still in existence and could go right to work.
“I had been told that it would be impossible to get the rural women interested in politics,” Henderson said, “but that was a mistake.” Henderson recalled riding through a remote part of Rowan County and seeing an old woman digging potatoes. She stopped to ask the woman if she had registered.
“Heavens child, I was reading Francis Willard’s temperance stuff before you were born, and I’ve been a suffragette for a mighty long time,” the woman reportedly replied. “I have surely registered and have gotten a lot more of the women around here to register too.”
Henderson noted that women’s clubs, although non-partisan, had put on “get out the vote” campaigns, “which have helped the women’s side of both parties wonderfully.”
A July 21, 1960, issue of the Watauga Democrat announced the organization of a League of Women Voters chapter in Boone.
“Any woman who has gone to the polls to exercise her right and her duty to vote and then felt baffled by a long ballot containing many unfamiliar names and offices has felt the need of this organization,” the front-page article stated. “While the League is nonpartisan and does not support or oppose specific candidates or parties, it does take action in support of or in opposition to selected governmental issues, and on election day there’s usually one thing that the Republican and Democratic parties can agree on: millions of people will be better informed voters because of the League of Women Voters.”
On May 6, 1971 — over 50 years since women had been granted the right to vote — North Carolina’s General Assembly voted to ratify the 19th Amendment as a symbolic gesture. The only state to wait longer to ratify the amendment, according to a U.S. News & World Report article, was Mississippi, which made it official in 1984.