Arkansas and the 19th Amendment

State of Arkansas depicted in purple, white, and gold (colors of the National Woman’s Party suffrage flag) – indicating Arkansas was one of the original 36 states to ratify the 19th Amendment. CC0
State of Arkansas depicted in purple, white, and gold (colors of the National Woman’s Party suffrage flag) – indicating Arkansas was one of the original 36 states to ratify the 19th Amendment.

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Women first organized and collectively fought for suffrage at the national level in July of 1848. Suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott convened a meeting of over 300 people in Seneca Falls, New York. In the following decades, women marched, protested, lobbied, and even went to jail. By the 1870s, women pressured Congress to vote on an amendment that would recognize their suffrage rights. This amendment became known as the 19th Amendment.

The women’s suffrage movement in Arkansas gained traction after the Civil War. Women in the state also wrote newspaper articles explaining the importance of a woman’s right to vote. In the 1880s and 1890s, Arkansas women created their own suffrage groups, including the Arkansas Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and the Political Equality League (PEL). Unfortunately, women’s suffrage groups in Arkansas often only supported the white woman’s right to vote. African American women formed their own organizations and clubs.

Mrs. David Terry of Little Rock, Arkansas was a member of the National Advisory Council of the Congressional Union. Library of Congress.
Mrs. David Terry of Little Rock, Arkansas was a member of the National Advisory Council of the Congressional Union. She was a graduate of Vassar College and founder of the first suffrage association in Arkansas.

Library of Congress, Records of the National Woman's Party Collection. https://www.loc.gov/resource/mnwp.157009/

African American women were often excluded from the suffrage organizations of white women. They fought for their suffrage in other ways by helping to advance civil rights for African American women and men. While the government recognized black men’s right to vote in 1870, many southern states prevented them from going to the polls. African American women fought for their suffrage rights and for those of black men by working with organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

After decades of arguments for and against women's suffrage, the US Congress finally voted in favor of the 19th Amendment in 1919. This is called ratification. After Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, at least 36 states needed to vote in favor of it for it to become law.

At the time, there was strong support for the 19th Amendment in Arkansas. This was due in part to visits from national suffrage leaders like Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt. The Arkansas legislature met on July 28, 1919 to vote on the amendment. Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of women’s suffrage and Arkansas became the 12th state to ratify the amendment. By August of 1920, 36 states ratified the 19th Amendment, recognizing women’s right to vote all across the country.

State flag of Arkansas, CC0
State flag of Arkansas, CC0

Women in Arkansas

Indigenous women of the Osage, Caddo, and Quapaw lived in Arkansas before the Spanish and French colonized the region. Many of these tribes were matrilineal, meaning they traced lineage through the mother’s family. The tribes were forced out of the region and moved to reservations in the west after European settlement.

In the 1600s and 1700s, French colonizers controlled the region. They relied on the forced labor of enslaved women to harvest crops and tend to the domestic work. The French were primarily concerned with trapping animals and trading furs. Wives often help their husbands with business and served as merchants and assistants.

Female settlers during this period had more independence and in some cases could exercise their right to own and inherit property. After the United States purchased the territory from France, women had less freedom. For example, they were no longer permitted to retain their property when they married. American women were expected to clean, cook, and care for the children.

After Arkansas became a state in 1836, more settlers flocked to the region. White, upper-class women had more leisure time as enslaved women performed much of the labor. As a result, these white women had time to establish book clubs, church communities, and pursue other activities. In rural settings, enslaved women worked in agriculture. But in towns and cities, women often performed domestic work in private homes or were hired out to businesses or hotels.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, white women banded together to collect goods for soldiers in the Confederate army. They also served as nurses. In many cases, enslaved women often stayed with their enslavers because they had nowhere else to go. As Union troops slowly took control of the South, enslaved women and their children often fled to these camps for freedom.

After the Civil War, enslaved women were emancipated and they found work as sharecroppers or performed domestic work. Even though they were free, these women and their families were often indebted to white landowners.

Toward the ends of the 1800s, both African American and white women understood the importance of education. Orphaned when she was a girl, Ella Carnall excelled at her studies and went on to be one of the first white female professors at the University of Arkansas. She taught English and modern languages from 1891 until her untimely death in 1894. In 1905, the university built its first dormitory for women and named it Carnall Hall in Ella’s honor.

But education was not always accessible to all people in Arkansas. Until 1954, schools in southern states were segregated based on race. Even after the US government integrated schools, many establishments still would not let African Americans attend. Daisy Bates challenged this exclusionary policy. She and eight other students integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957. They are known as the Little Rock Nine.

The hardships and triumphs in the lives of women like Bates and Carnall are stories for us to explore and learn from. As we discover their stories, we come to find that women’s history is Arkansas history.

Last updated: November 15, 2018