The Equal Suffrage League of Virginia (ESL) was founded in 1909 in Richmond. when eighteen women met at the home of Anne Clay Crenshaw. Lila Meade Valentine, a Richmond native, became the first president of the ESL. Valentine believed that an electorate that included women would be more supportive of democratic issues such as equal educational opportunities and health care reform. Along with Valentine, the league's others members included several prestigious women, among them Ellen Glasgow, Mary Johnston, Adéle Clark, Nora Houston, and Dr. Katherine Waller Barrett. During the first year about 120 women joined. The league sought to win women the right to vote as a democratic right of tax-paying citizens, which women were. Although independence had been won in 1776, women were still not equal citizens nearly a century and a half later. By denying women the right to vote, they argued, America was stuck in pre-Revolution days of taxation without representation.
The League joined forces with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and organized a campaign to inform Virginia residents about the issue of woman suffrage. The League started an education campaign that included passing out literature on city streets, visiting women's colleges, and addressing Virginia residents at town meetings, union meetings, and state conferences. The ESL went on to become Virginia's largest and most influential woman suffrage organization.
The ESL faced organized resistance in the form of the Virginia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, founded in 1912. Much of the antisuffragist rhetoric placed women's role within the home and often focused on the idea of separate spheres for women and men. Antisuffragists argued that men's role was in the public sphere whereas women belonged in the private sphere or the home and that if women stepped outside of their designated sphere than the family unit would ultimately suffer. Suffragists who rejected this social norm appeared truly revolutionary for their time. The suffrage movement brought women into the public sphere where they exercised democratic rights such as speaking in public on behalf of woman's rights.
Among them, Elizabeth Dabney “Lizzie” Langhorne Lewis broke free from social norms, and spoke in public, campaigning for a woman's right to vote. Langhorne was born in Botetourt County but later moved with her family to Lynchburg. In 1873 she married John H. Lewis, an attorney. Her grandniece, Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor, viscountess Astor, who in 1919 became the first woman to be seated as a member of Parliament, recalled that her aunt had “a well-reasoned mind, curious about all new ideas, accepting nothing until she was convinced.” For a woman of her time, Lewis was very political and became a popular speaker on behalf of woman suffrage and improved working conditions for women.
Despite the ESL's being one of the most influential suffrage leagues in the nation, the Virginia General Assembly defeated woman suffrage resolutions three times between 1912 and 1916 and refused to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment after Congress submitted it to the states in 1919. Shortly after the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, the ESL disbanded on November 8, 1920, and two days later reorganized as the League of Women Voters of Virginia, a state chapter within the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization, that still exists today.
1. Who was the first President of the ESL?
2. What arguments did the ESL make for woman suffrage?
3. What arguments did antisuffragists make?
4. How was Elizabeth Dabney Langhorne different from other women of her generation?
1. Why is Elizabeth Dabney Langhorne listed as “Mrs. John H. Lewis”? What does this tell us about women's role in American society?
2. Elizabeth Dabney Langhorne was an excellent public speaker. Why is good public speaking such an important factor in the success or failure of a cause? What have been some of the most important speeches delivered by women in American history?
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.