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“Unwarranted, Unnecessary, Undemocratic:” The Virginia General Assembly Responds to the Proposed Nineteenth Amendment in 1919

Pickets at the White House, 1917. Harris & Ewing, photographer. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. In June 1919 Congress proposed an amendment to the Constitution of the United States guaranteeing women’s right to vote (with only one vote in favor from Virginia’s congressional delegation, Republican C. Bascom Slemp). Virginia suffrage advocates expressed their hopes that ratification would happen quickly. Equal Suffrage League of Virginia president Lila Meade Valentine rejoiced that Congress had at last taken action to “enable this nation to stand before the democracies of the world unashamed,” although she regretted that Virginia “did not long ago take the initiative” by passing an amendment to the state constitution. “I trust,” she concluded, that the General Assembly “may atone for the past neglect by being among the first to ratify the national amendment.”

Nine states ratified the amendment (often referred to as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment) before the end of June. Although the General Assembly of Virginia was not scheduled to hold its regular session until January 1920, the governor called a special session for August 1919 to prepare a plan to take advantage of a federal grant for road construction. Suffragists in Virginia disagreed about whether to push the issue of ratification during the special session or to wait until the regular session five months later. Equal Suffrage League officers favored laying the groundwork for ratification in the regular session, but members of the Virginia branch of the National Woman’s Party, which had embraced radical tactics of picketing the White House and burning speeches of President Woodrow Wilson, wanted to tackle ratification immediately.

The session opened on 13 August 1919, and two weeks later Governor Westmoreland Davis, who supported woman suffrage, submitted the amendment to the General Assembly. Delegates and senators disagreed about whether it was appropriate to bring up the issue of ratification in a session called to discuss public roads. Although some legislators supported voting rights for women, most members of the assembly did not. Many were also vehemently opposed to a federal amendment that they saw as a threat to the state’s right to control the franchise and severely restrict the ability of African American men to vote. The proposed nineteenth amendment echoed the language of the Fifteenth Amendment that enabled Congress to enforce provisions that allowed African American men to vote after the Civil War. Virginia’s politicians had spent decades undoing the reforms of the post-Civil War period that had seen African Americans form a coalition with white working-class voters and take control of Virginia’s government late in the 1870s. Virginia’s politicians feared that opening the door to woman suffrage would again allow African Americans a voice in governing the state.

The session attracted national attention. Woodrow Wilson sent telegrams urging “the Legislature of my native state” to ratify the amendment. Opponents of woman suffrage expressed their outrage. The Alabama Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage telegraphed the Virginia assembly to urge rejection of the amendment. “Not once through all these years,” the telegram asserted, had Virginia’s “torch of white supremacy flickered.” The association asked the legislators whether Confederate general Robert E. Lee would “vote to place in alien hands the sacred trust of his state sovereignty, its suffrage? A thousand times no.” Virginia’s legislators must do likewise, the telegram from the Alabamians continued, otherwise “there is no hope, no help nor justice.” If legislators ratified the amendment, they might as well “Tear down your Confederate monuments” and erect instead “columns of triumphant arches to those who so scorned you and yours—Susan B. Anthony, Thad Stevens, John Brown and Frederick Douglass.”

The suffragists remained undaunted. With other officers of the Virginia branch of the National Woman’s Party, president Sophie G. Meredith helped persuade sympathetic members of both houses to introduce resolutions to ratify the amendment. As officers of the Equal Suffrage League feared, the move failed. At the beginning of September, Delegate Thomas W. Ozlin, of Lunenburg County, and Senator Robert F. Leedy, who represented the district that included Clarke, Page, and Warren Counties, introduced resolutions that condemned the federal amendment. On 3 September, the House of Delegates by a vote of 61 to 21 passed Ozlin’s resolution that denounced the amendment as “an unwarranted, unnecessary, undemocratic and dangerous interference with the rights reserved to the States or to the people in both State and Federal Constitutions.” The next day, House of Delegates refused by a vote of 50 to 17 to rescind the resolution, and the Senate voted 19 to 14 “to pass the resolution by indefinitely,” meaning that the senators would not take up the subject again. That concluded the assembly’s action on the amendment in the special session, and Virginia suffrage advocates would have to wait until the January 1920 regular session to try again. Although the General Assembly did not ratify the amendment until 1952, Virginia women gained the right to vote when Tennessee became the final state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment in August 1920.

The Library of Virginia will commemorate the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification in 2020 with a year-long exhibition, We Demand: Woman Suffrage in Virginia and the publication of The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia (Charleston, S.C.: The History Press). In addition, the Library is also documenting the lives of numerous Virginia suffragists and anti-suffragists with entries in our online Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Finally, our many dedicated volunteers are currently transcribing the digitized Equal Suffrage League of Virginia Records on Making History: Transcribe to help make them more accessible to researchers.

 

– Mari Julienne and Brent Tarter, editors, Dictionary of Virginia Biography.

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