Women's Suffrage

Despite the fact that the war had altered the perspectives of many North Carolinians, the General Assembly reacted with little interest to a proposal that had been introduced many years before--that it grant the vote to women. Very much as their predecessor had cone in the 1850s when considering free manhood suffrage, North Carolina legislators of the early twentieth century hesitated to extend the suffrage to women. In the colonial period and even for a time afterward, women had been permitted to vote in New York, New Jersey, and a few other places. While a new constitution was being prepared in North Carolina in 1868, someone asked why women should not be granted the right to vote, especially if black men were to be enfranchised, but no one paid any attention. Yet the following year, women were permitted to vote in Wyoming when it was organized as a territory. The question, then, was by no means new.

In 1884, Margaret Richardson attended a National Suffrage Association convention in Washington, D.C. She was probably the first North Carolinian to demonstrate a personal concern in the matter. Thereafter suffrage associations were formed in some of the stated, but not until the winter of 1894 was North Carolina among them. At the call of Helen Morris Lewis, a local music teacher, forty-five men and women met in the Buncombe County courthouse and, under the guidance of Mayor Thomas W. Patton, organized the North Carolina Equal Suffrage Association. Its newly elected president, Helen Lewis, then began a speaking tour of some of the western counties to make known the wishes of at least some women to have the vote. In the General Assembly early in 1897 Senator J.L. Hyatt, a Yancey County Republican, introduced a women's suffrage bill. Many of the all-male legislators probably were surprised at such a proposal, and perhaps applauded the decision to send it to the committee on insane asylums, where it died.

The whole idea of votes for women ceased to be a viable option for fifteen years. In the summer of 1913 a local suffrage league was formed in Morganton, and again some men thought that was a appropriate site since Morganton was also the home of an insane asylum. But the revived proposal began to take root--another chapter was formed in Greenville--and the state suffrage league went to work. In November a convention was held and a president elected; soon women from South Carolina and Virginia arrived to assist in recruiting new members. Charlotte followed Greenville with a large local league, and by the end of 1914 the list included sixteen towns. In Reidsville T. Wingate Andrews, superintendent of schools, was president, and in Chapel Hill fourteen of the twenty-nine members were men. Newspaper publicity was generous but not always complimentary. The morning dailies in Charlotte and Raleigh, however, were very supportive. Chief Justice Walter Clark spoke often and forcefully in favor of women's suffrage, stressing that the most aggressive opponents were the liquor interests and the political machines who might well expect to be put out of business by the votes of women.

When they failed to achieve their goal, women in the state suffrage movement lowered their sights and sought the right to vote just in presidential and municipal elections. To equip themselves for the campaign, many of them attended courses in public speaking, parliamentary law, publicity organization, and fund-raising. Nevertheless, the General Assembly of 1917 rejected both a bill to grant municipal suffrage and another one to grant suffrage in presidential elections, the latter by a closer vote than the former.

After the United States declared war on Germany in the spring of 1917, women demonstrated their patriotism by taking jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight. Their contributions and effective leadership earned the gratitude of many who had for so long referred to women as "the weaker sex." Having thus been accepted in business and industry where many remained, women renewed their campaign for women's rights in the political arena. Membership in the Equal Suffrage League increased dramatically.

When Congress began to consider an amendment to the United States Constitution in 1918 to grant the vote to women, many women in North Carolina wrote to their state's representatives urging them to support it. However, only one congressman from North Carolina endorsed the proposed amendment. At home, those who supported universal suffrage tried to have both political parties include a plank to the effect in their platforms. The Republicans complied without opposition,but the Democrats declined to do so, maintaining that the issue was too divisive for the party to take a stand. Not surprisingly, in view of the Democrats' attitude, an attempt to obtain municipal suffrage for women failed in 1919. Three months after the General Assembly adjourned, however, the Congress submitted the text of a proposed amendment providing for women's suffrage.

The Nineteenth Amendment was approved by one state after another, and in the summer of 1920 the General Assembly of North Carolina was called into special session to consider this and other important matters. Hope was high that the state would support the amendment, as by that time only one more acceptance was needed for it to take effect. The legislature of Tennessee was also in session for the same purpose, and many North Carolinians wanted their state to have the distinction of taking the decisive step. Legislators, however, were not stirred by the urgent appeals from both men and women. Instead of accepting the inevitable, they sent a "round robin petition"--with names signed in a circle so no one could tell who signed it first--asking their counterparts across the mountains to reject the amendment. This cowardly device was ineffective, and Tennessee ratified anyway. The women's suffrage amendment became a part of the United States Constitution on 26 August 1920. Women acquired the right to vote with no thanks to the North Carolina General Assembly. The legislature, in a meaningless action, finally ratified the amendment in 1971.


From North Carolina through Four Centuries, by William S. Powell (copyright 1988, University of North Carolina Press).