West Virginia and the 19th Amendment

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

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Women fought for the right to vote since the mid-1800s. They marched, protested, lobbied, and even went to jail. By the 1870s, women pressured Congress to vote on an amendment that would give them suffrage rights. This amendment became known as the 19th Amendment.

After decades of arguments for and against women's suffrage, 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.

On March 10, 1920, West Virginia voted in favor of the Nineteenth Amendment. By August of 1920, 36 states (including Arizona) ratified the amendment, giving women the right to vote.

State flag of West Virginia
State flag of West Virginia. CC0

Women in West Virginia

Indigenous people lived in what is now West Virginia for thousands of years. Some of the more modern tribes include the Shawnee, Tutelo-Saponi, Cherokee, and many others. In some tribes, women could hold leadership positions, such as serving as village chiefs. In some cases women could also own property.

European colonizers settled in the region in the 1600s and 1700s and forced Indigenous people off of the land. European settlers did not recognize the rights of women as Indigenous men did. While Indigenous women could own property, women of European descent could not. It was not until 1830s that the state legislature created laws recognizing a woman’s right to own property. Before this, the man would automatically assumed ownership over a woman’s belongings when they married.

As in other states, women in West Virginia often did not have the same opportunities as men. However many West Virginian women became successful business owners despite the challenges. A white woman named Mildred Walker Brazie inherited the Altamont hotel in Fayetteville, West Virginia in 1898. The hotel was owned and operated by four generations of women.

Elizabeth Hardin Gilmore was the first African American woman licensed as a funeral director in Kanawha County, West Virginia in the late 1930s. She ran the Harden and Harden funeral home and was known for business savvy and civil rights work to integrate public institutions in her town.

West Virginia was home to other notable Civil Rights leaders, including Memphis Tennessee Garrison. Born in 1890, Garrison was the daughter of formerly enslaved parents. After receiving an education, she became a teacher. She enjoyed helping children who had difficulty learning. Garrison created specialized lesson plans for students who struggled in school. She was also active in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The hardships and triumphs in these women's lives are stories for us to explore and learn from. As we discover their stories, we come to find that women’s history is West Virginia history.