Women Get The Vote

An entry in the 1897 Senate Journal. For more details, follow this link.

Background Information

Women made their first significant progress toward full civil rights in the new century. The climate for change had been brought about less by their own advocacy of new rights than by their services to the state. The work of patriotic groups supporting prohibition and other popular causes, the remarkable work of women in the war effort, and the entry of females into the professions demonstrated the potential contributions of women in a male-dominated society. Sallie Southall Cotten, an organizer of the North Carolina Federation of Women's Clubs, reminded the public of some of the services of women: "Clean-up Day, screening foods from flies and dust, getting garbage ordinances passed, the installation of trash cans on the streets, the writing of county histories, the securing and awarding of scholarships, improving conditions in railroad stations, medical inspection in schools, drinking fountains, and other health measures carried to success, play grounds equipped, and so many things done that the retrospect is wonderful and inspiring."

That not all North Carolinians associated good works with individual rights was demonstrated in the long struggle for women suffrage. An equal-suffrage association had been formed in Asheville in 1894, but even the fusion senate three years later laughed down the first bill proposing access to the ballot box by females. Sixteen years later the North Carolina Equal Suffrage League was formed, and soon suffragettes were marching in parades with sighs reading, "Votes for Women" and "Taxation without Representation Is Tyranny." Leaders of the movement emulated tactics of other special interest groups by holding mass meetings, installing booths at fairs, and talking with legislators. A bill "to confer upon women the right to vote in all municipal elections," introduced in 1913 by Representative David McKenzie Clark of Pitt County, was treated with reasonable respect, but it, like all other equal-suffrage bills for the next several sessions, failed to pass. Even an act of 1915 authorizing the governor to appoint women as well as men as notaries public was struck down by the supreme court (over, of course, Walter Clark's dissent).

Suffragettes pictured about 1920. Follow this link for more information.

In 1920 the General Assembly refused to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, and a majority of the members of the house sent a telegram urging Tennessee legislators not to force the "Susan B. Anthony amendment" upon the people of North Carolina. Fifteen days later, the amendment was proclaimed ratified by the requisite number of states.

This development must have given satisfaction to a young representative from Buncombe County. The name was L. Exum Clement--really Lillian Exum Clement, "Brother Exum" to her fellow representatives--the first woman to serve in the state legislature. The legal barrier against women removed, the statewide vote in 1920 nearly doubled that of four years earlier. There was no rush of women candidates, however, for the law did not eradicate bias. Nevertheless, women in small numbers began filling offices at both the state and local levels, and the dire predictions of opponents were gradually forgotten.

From North Carolina Illustrated, by H. G. Jones (copyright 1983, by the North Caroliniana Society).

Detailed information on women's suffrage