On August 24, 1920, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution making woman suffrage legal throughout the United States. Nine southern states withheld ratification, including Virginia. Despite Virginia's failure to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, the prosuffrage women of the state worked tirelessly to organize and gain “votes for women.”
The Equal Suffrage League of Virginia (ESL) was founded in 1909 in Richmond. The ESL became one of the most influential suffrage organizations in the country. Among the twenty founding women, Lila Meade Valentine, a Richmond native, was elected the league's first president. The league's members included several prestigious women, Ellen Glasgow, Mary Johnston, Adéle Clark, Nora Houston, and Dr. Katherine Waller Barrett. During the league's first year, almost 120 members joined, most of them residents of Richmond. Recruiting new members initially proved difficult. Among the obstacles league members met with were the objections of fathers to their daughters participating in the league and women with a lack of knowledge on the subject of or interest in woman suffrage.
From the beginning the ESL faced enormous challenges that well-established organizations, such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association, had already met. Virginia women needed to start an education campaign that would bring public awareness to the issue of woman suffrage. In an effort to spread the word for woman suffrage, member writer Mary Johnston spoke at women's colleges and Valentine gave more than 100 speeches across Virginia encouraging suffrage support. Other members did their part by visiting schools, fairs, and union meetings and distributing materials on city streets. These strategies worked. By 1911, membership had grown to 290, and by 1919 to 30,000 and with numerous branches across Virginia.
Although progress was made, the women of the ESL confronted additional challenges when groups like the Virginia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (VAOWS) formed in opposition to the cause. The VAOWS used racist and political arguments to promote antisuffrage, claiming that woman suffrage would destroy state's rights and often drawing parallels between it and the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. One of the most prominent arguments that antisuffrage organizations made was that if black women were allowed to vote it would endanger white supremacy. This could potentially explain why nine of the ten states that initially refused to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment were in the South.
The Equal Suffrage League expanded its objectives to appeal to more women. Instead of simply promoting the vote for women, the league examined all aspects of women's lives and called attention to the inequality women faced legally, socially, and economically. Adopting truly feminist ideals, the ESL helped paved the way for woman's rights campaigns in the future. In spite of these progressive ideals, traditions in Virginia proved too difficult to break both socially and politically early in the twentieth century. The General Assembly refused to submit a state woman suffrage constitutional amendment to the voters, and it was not until 32 years after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified that the assembly ratified the amendment.
1. How many states refused to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920?
2. Where was the Equal Suffrage League started?
3. What are some of the challenges the Equal Suffrage League faced?
4. Did Virginia ratify the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920?
1. Why did Virginia and so many other southern states refuse to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment for so long? What characteristic of southern culture and society during this period contributed to that refusal? Granting the right to vote to women would mean that African American women would be able to vote. What were the implications of that reality?
Graham, Sara Hunter. “Woman Suffrage in Virginia: The Equal Suffrage League and Pressure Group Politics, 1909–1920.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 101, no. 2 (April, 1993): 227–250.
Lebsock, Suzanne. “Woman Suffrage and White Supremacy: A Virginia Case Study.” In Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism. Edited by Nancy Hewitt and Suzanne Lebsock, 62–100. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Green, Elna C. Southern Strategies: Southern Women and the Woman Suffrage Question. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997, esp. 151–177.