Woman Suffrage in the Southern States

Virginia Museum of History and Culture Collections
Figure 1: Members of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia posing near the Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond. Courtesy of Virginia Museum of History & Culture,
By Sarah H. Case

Although the woman suffrage movement emerged later and had fewer victories in the South than in the West and Northeast, southern women could claim responsibility for the decisive vote leading to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, declaring that voting rights could not be restricted “on account of sex.” In the summer of 1920, the amendment had passed Congress and been ratified by thirty-five of the necessary thirty-six states, and all eyes turned to Tennessee. In August, the state senate easily ratified the amendment, but the vote in the house resulted in a tense tie. Surprising his colleagues, a young representative from a district with strong anti-suffrage support named Harry T. Burn suddenly changed his vote in favor of ratification. With Burn’s vote, the woman suffrage amendment became part of the Constitution. When asked why he had changed his mind, Burn pointed to a letter from his mother in which she exhorted him to “vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt . . . be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt [Carrie Chapman Catt, leader of the National American Suffrage Association] with her ‘Rats.’!”[1]

This charming story of a loyal son, however, obscures the hard work of suffrage supporters that led to Burn’s decisive vote as well as the continuing fierce opposition to the expansion of the franchise. The ratification campaign in the summer of 1920 summer was grueling, intense, and bitter and reflected ongoing tensions surrounding equal citizenship, gender, and race.[2] As elsewhere in the nation, but perhaps even more profoundly in the South, the question of woman suffrage was intimately entwined with racial politics shaped by the Civil War, Reconstruction, and its aftermath. The expansion of Black civil rights after the Civil War, guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the US Constitution, and attempts to curtail those rights set the context for debates over voting rights in the southern states for decades. These tensions helped shape the complex, difficult, and divisive fight for woman suffrage in the southern states.

* * *

Southern women, like their northern and western sisters, joined women’s clubs and voluntary associations during the “age of association” of the 1830s. Two, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, daughters of a South Carolina slaveholder, were among the first American women to speak publicly on behalf of both abolition and women’s rights; they did so, however, after leaving the South and moving to Philadelphia. In the 1840s and 1850s, elite white women in Virginia and elsewhere participated in political campaigns, often aligning themselves with the Whig Party, which tended to support benevolent reform measures that attracted women’s support more robustly than did the Democratic Party of the era and even celebrated women’s civic contributions.[3] But although individual women favored voting rights, very little organized support of opening the franchise to women existed in the southern states in the antebellum period.

During Reconstruction, some southern women did seek to create suffrage organizations, founding branches of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) or the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). The end of the Civil War and passage of three constitutional amendments, the Thirteenth (ending slavery), Fourteenth (promising equal birthright citizenship), and Fifteenth (prohibiting racially based disenfranchisement), engendered a national conversation about civil rights, equality, and voting rights, one that many women sought to extend to include consideration of woman suffrage. Some southern Reconstruction-era woman suffrage organizations included Black and white women. [4] But Reconstruction’s end and the ascendency of overtly racist state governments bent on undoing its reforms discouraged these coalitions. By the turn of the century, southern states had created elaborate segregation and disenfranchisement measures, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses, and the Supreme Court had upheld them as constitutional. In the post-Reconstruction era in which state governments institutionalized white supremacy, to link woman suffrage with Black civil and voting rights discredited both movements. The nascent southern woman suffrage movement lost influence and visibility, even as individual women remained committed to the cause.

Organizational activity increased after the AWSA and NWSA merged in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). NAWSA set a policy of founding local clubs across the nation, including in the South, and dedicated itself to recruiting southern women into its ranks. This strategy worked to an extent; women created NAWSA clubs across the region, but they tended to be overly dependent on the leadership of an individual, often a woman who had lived part of her life in the Northeast, and declined or collapsed after she left the organization. The lack of cultivation of grassroots support in the 1890s led to a decline in the southern suffrage movement in the following decade.[5]

After 1910, energized partially by the expansion of the national movement under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt and the successes of referenda in western states, the southern movement gained new strength. There were reasons specific to the region for the increase of support as well. Southern suffragists tended to be members of the new urban middle class. Their fathers and husbands, and sometimes they themselves, took part in the industrializing economy, in positions that linked them to a national market or to urban centers, such as in small business, education, the law, and local banking. This distinguished them from the traditional southern elite tied to the plantation economy and industries that served them—textile manufacturing, railroads, and mining. Southern suffrage supporters often had an advanced education, sometimes a college education, and a few had attended northeastern women’s colleges. Many worked for part of their lives in the new urban economy, often as teachers or in family businesses. As elsewhere, many of these women became involved in Progressive-Era reform, as settlement workers, clubwomen, and missionaries, responding to the new problems created by urbanization and industrialization and exercising skills they gained through education and employment. For example, Atlanta, the archetypical New South city, grew from 9,554 people in 1860 to over 65,000 in 1890 to over 150,000 in 1910 and became a center for Black and white women’s employment and social activism. It was not until after 1910 that the region produced a critical mass of “new women of the New South” as the economy industrialized and urbanized. Many of these women became interested in expanding education, abolishing child labor and the convict lease system, improving city services, and, through their support for reform, attracted to the suffrage cause.[6]
Kate Gordon, Collections Library of Congress
Figure 2: Kate Gordon of New Orleans, supporter of “state’s rights suffrage” and opponent of a federal amendment. Gordon viewed suffrage for white women as a way to strengthen white supremacy. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
During the pivotal decade of the 1910s, southern women lent their support to woman suffrage organizations that varied widely in their political objectives and strategies. Most joined local groups associated with NAWSA such as the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia (Figure 1); a few affiliated themselves with Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party (NWP), an organization single-mindedly focused on a national amendment. Smaller in number but influential was the uniquely southern states’ rights suffrage movement. Headed by Kate Gordon of Louisiana (Figure 2), the southern states’ rights suffragists opposed a federal amendment while pressuring state legislatures to enfranchise women—or, to be more accurate, white women. Gordon, who created the Era (or Equal Rights for All) Club in New Orleans in 1896, explicitly viewed state-level woman suffrage measures as a way to maintain white supremacy and a majority white electorate. Her visibility as head of the Era Club gained her the support of NAWSA and in 1903 the position of corresponding secretary of the organization. NAWSA leadership hoped that Gordon could help expand the movement in the southern states. But over time, her unyielding support of the states’ rights approach alienated her from the national movement.[7]

In 1913, responding to the growing support for a national amendment, Gordon formed the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference (SSWSC). The motto of its journal, “Make the Southern States White,” underlined its view of the goal of enfranchising white women. Although at first envisioned and funded as a branch of NAWSA, Gordon’s organization was increasingly at odds with the national group, and even an outright adversary. Most southern suffragists disagreed with Gordon’s rejection of a national amendment and the national organization and found her attempt to defeat both counterproductive. In Louisiana, the division between SSWSC supporters and NAWSA members was acrimonious and destructive. Gordon refused to work with a NAWSA-affiliated group in 1918 to support a proposed state suffrage amendment that she favored; though passed by the legislature, it failed ratification by the electorate. This defeat stemmed from a variety of sources, including opposition from a powerful New Orleans political machine steadfastly opposed to reform movements of all kinds. But Gordon’s hostility toward other suffrage supporters weakened the movement in Louisiana. She continued to oppose a national amendment, actively campaigning against the Nineteenth Amendment, because it would enfranchise Black women. Many white southerners, like Gordon, feared that a national woman suffrage amendment would bring increased federal scrutiny of elections and enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Racial ideology was central to political struggles in the New South.[8]

Gordon’s outspoken support of woman suffrage as a way to ensure white supremacy was not typical of those who joined groups affiliated with NAWSA or the NWP. More typical were arguments that Black women would be disenfranchised by the same measures that disenfranchised Black men. As a pamphlet from the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia asserted, “As these [state-level voting] laws restrict the negro man’s vote, it stands to reason that they will also restrict the negro woman’s vote.” NAWSA and NWP affiliates sought to politely avoid the race question, denouncing neither Black disenfranchisement nor the overtly racist language of Gordon and her allies. White woman suffragists’ lack of support for Black women’s (and men’s) voting rights points to their regrettable acceptance of Jim Crow in the southern states and in much of the nation.[9]

In this racially hostile environment, Black women who sought equal civil and political rights knew that outspoken resistance to the status quo could be met by violence. Yet African American women born in the South had a profound influence on the suffrage movement, often after they left the region. Ida B. Wells Barnett, born in 1892 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, advocated for civil rights, women’s rights including suffrage, and an end to lynching from her adopted home of Chicago, where she settled after her life was threatened in Memphis. In Chicago, she founded the Women’s Era Club and later the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, the first Black woman’s club dedicated to voting rights for women. Despite the indifference or even hostility she faced from white suffrage activists, she continued to push for enfranchisement of Black women. Taking part in the significant 1913 parade in Washington, DC, sponsored by NAWSA, Wells refused to march in the back as instructed and instead joined the rest of the Illinois delegation.[10]
Mary Church Terrell Col. Library of Congress
Figure 3: Mary Church Terrell, born in Memphis and active in Washington, DC, viewed woman suffrage as an essential component of achieving civil rights for African Americans. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Some Black women advocated for suffrage while remaining in the South.[11] Mary Church Terrell, born in Memphis, Tennessee, graduated from Oberlin College and spent most of her career in Washington, DC (Figure 3). A writer and educator, she headed an active suffrage movement in that city and associated herself with the Republican Party.[12] In urban areas, such as Atlanta, Black female Progressives viewed suffrage for all as essential for securing civil rights.[13] Black women in Nashville supported suffrage from a variety of secular and church organizations. After Tennessee women won the right to vote in municipal elections in 1919, Black and white clubwomen of that city created a coalition designed to increase the political influence of both. Making a class- and gender-based alliance, Nashville women worked to enact educational and social service reform, as well as Black representation in municipal services. This alliance was remarkable and unusual; typically white suffrage supporters avoided association with Black women and attempted to downplay the accusations of anti-suffrage activists that woman suffrage would increase Black women’s political influence.

Indeed, anti-suffragists played on racial anxieties in their attempt to resist woman suffrage in the South. Georgia, the first state to vote against ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, had a particularly visible “anti” movement.[14] In 1914, they formed the Georgia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (GAOWS), the first southern branch of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, founded in New York City in response to the growing power of the movement in the Northeast.[15] As was true for anti-suffragists elsewhere, female opponents to suffrage in the South feared that the vote would “desex” women, destroy the home, and lessen, rather than strengthen, women’s power and influence.[16] As leading Georgia anti Mildred Lewis Rutherford declared in 1912, “if there is a power that is placed in any hands, it is the power that is placed in the hands of the southern woman in her home. . . . That power is great enough to direct legislative bodies—and that, too, without demanding the ballot.”[17] Additionally, southern antis feared that a federal woman suffrage amendment would violate the racial order, since it would bring increased, and unwelcome, scrutiny to southern elections. Anti-suffrage propaganda often pointed to the “horrors” of Reconstruction, especially Black voting power, as a cautionary tale against extending the franchise.[18] Antis also worried that that the intimidation techniques used against Black men would not work against women. As a Virginia newspaper declared, “We have managed the men, but could we manage the women? It is a different proposition. We believe that most of the women would qualify and we further believe that they would persuade many of the men to qualify; and pay their poll taxes for them if need be.”[19] Southern antis pointed to Black women’s educational and employment gains by the 1890s, asserting that Black women outpaced Black men in literacy and in determination to pay their poll tax even if it they would “go hungry.”[20] Antis believed that whites needed total control over voting (not just a majority of votes) by state-level restrictions to maintain political dominance.

Antis proved influential and formidable. In 1920 only Texas and Arkansas had full voting rights for (white) women. Tennessee allowed voting in presidential elections and citywide elections. A few states, including Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana, allowed women to vote in some school elections, and women voted in some cities in Florida on municipal matters. Of the southern states that ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, all—Kentucky, Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee—had some degree of state-level female enfranchisement. After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, many southern women—especially Black women, but also some white women—found themselves disenfranchised by poll taxes and other measures.[21] Despite the success of the federal amendment, antidemocratic forces in state and local politics continued to limit the ability of southern women to exercise the right to vote.

At the turn of the twentieth century, as southern legislators sought to limit the franchise for African American men, many white southerners were loathe to support any expansion of voting rights. Whereas antis tended to openly advocate support for racial inequality, white suffrage supporters approached the issue in different ways, with some viewing white women’s enfranchisement as a way to ensure white supremacy, others downplaying the issue, and a small number forming coalitions with Black women. Southern African American women viewed woman suffrage as part the struggle for civil rights and racial equality. In the early twentieth-century South, the debate over woman suffrage was inextricably linked with contemporary views on race, Black disenfranchisement, and white supremacy.
Sarah H. Case is continuing lecturer in history at University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of Leaders of Their Race: Educating Black and White Women in the New South (Illinois, 2017). She is also the managing editor of The Public Historian, a journal focused on publicly engaged historical research.

[1] The full letter can be found on the website Teach Tennessee History, created by the East Tennessee Historical Society.
[2] A. Elizabeth Taylor, “A Short History of the Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 2, no. 3 (September 1943): 195–215; A. Elizabeth Taylor, “Tennessee: The Thirty-Sixth State,” in Votes for Women! The Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee, the South, and the Nation, ed. Marjorie Spruill Wheeler (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995), 53–70; Anastatia Sims, “‘Powers that Pray’ and ‘Powers that Prey’: Tennessee and the Fight for Woman Suffrage,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 50, no. 4 (Winter 1991): 203–25; Robert B. Jones, “Defenders of ‘Constitutional Rights’ and ‘Womanhood’: The Antisuffrage Press and the Nineteenth Amendment in Tennessee,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 71, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 46–69.
[3] Elizabeth R. Varon, We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in the Antebellum Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 71–72, 80–83, 89.
[4] Varon, We Mean to Be Counted, 173–75; Elna C. Green, Southern Strategies: Southern Women and the Woman Suffrage Question (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 6–7, 154–55.
[5] Green, Southern Strategies, 8–10.
[6] Green, Southern Strategies, xiv–xvi, 13–20; Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Joan Marie Johnson, Southern Ladies, New Women: Race, Region, and Clubwomen in South Carolina, 1890–1930 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004); Joan Marie Johnson, Southern Women at the Seven Sister Colleges: Feminist Values and Social Activism, 1875–1915 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008).
[7] B. H. Gilley, “Kate Gordon and Louisiana Woman Suffrage,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 24, no. 3 (Summer 1983): 289–306; Kenneth R. Johnson, “Kate Gordon and the Woman-Suffrage Movement in the South,” Journal of Southern History 38, no.3 (August 1972): 365–92; Green, Southern Strategies, 129–32.
[8] Gilley, “Kate Gordon”; Johnson, “Kate Gordon”; Green, Southern Strategies, 133–43.
[9] Suzanne Lebsock, “Woman Suffrage and White Supremacy: A Virginia Case Study,” in Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism, ed. Nancy Hewitt and Suzanne Lebsock (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 62–100, quote 78; Green, Southern Strategies, 11, 94–95.
[10] Adele Logan Alexander, Adella Hunt Logan, The “Tuskegee Woman’s Club, and African Americans in the Suffrage Movement,” in Wheeler, Votes for Women, 71–104, esp. 78–79; Patricia A. Schechter, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880–1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 200.
[11] Ann D. Gordon et al., eds., African American Women and the Vote, 1837–1965 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1997); Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850–1920 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).
[12] Beverly W. Jones, “Mary Church Terrell and the National Association of Colored Women, 1896 to 1901,” Journal of Negro History 67, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 20–33; Treva B. Lindsey, Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington, D.C. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 87, 97–101.
[13] Jacqueline Anne Rouse, Lugenia Burns Hope: Black Southern Reformer (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989), 9, 109.
[14] Elizabeth Gillespie McRae, “Caretakers of Southern Civilization: Georgia Women and the Anti-Suffrage Campaign, 1914–1920,” in “Georgia Women: Perspectives on Class, Race, and Ethnicity,” special issue, Georgia Historical Quarterly 82, no. 4 (Winter 1998): 801–28.
[15] Susan Marshall, “In Defense of Separate Spheres: Class and Status Politics in the Antisuffrage Movement,” Social Forces 65, no. 2. (December 1986): 327–51.
[16] Green, Southern Strategies, 83–85; McRae, “Caretakers of Southern Civilization,” 809.
[17] Sarah H. Case, “The Historical Ideology of Mildred Lewis Rutherford: A Confederate Historian’s New South Creed,” Journal of Southern History 68, no. 3 (August 2002): 599–628, quote 614.
[18] McRae, “Caretakers of Southern Civilization,” 811–13; Case, “Mildred Lewis Rutherford,” 614–15; Green, Southern Strategies, 87.
[19] Lebsock, “Woman Suffrage and White Supremacy,” 77.
[20] Green, Southern Strategies, 96–97. Quote from the Richmond (Virginia) Evening Journal. Others believed the both Black men and women would sacrifice food and clothing to pay the poll tax and vote; see quotation in Green, 96.
[21] Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman, "The Second Battle for Woman Suffrage: Alabama White Women, the Poll Tax, and V. O. Key's Master Narrative of Southern Politics,” Journal of Southern History 68, no. 2 (May 2002): 333–74, esp. 333–35.

Dudden, Faye E. Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Gidlow, Liette. “The Sequel: The Fifteenth Amendment, the Nineteenth Amendment, and Southern Black Women's Struggle to Vote.” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 17, no. 3 (July 2018): 433–449.

Gilley, B. H. “Kate Gordon and Louisiana Woman Suffrage.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 24: 3 (Summer 1983): 289–306.

Gordon, Ann D. et al., eds. African American Women and the Vote, 1837–1965. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

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.

Green, Elna C. Southern Strategies: Southern Women and the Woman Suffrage Question. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Johnson, Joan Marie. Southern Ladies, New Women: Race, Region, and Clubwomen in South Carolina, 1890–1930. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

Johnson, Kenneth R. “Kate Gordon and the Woman-Suffrage Movement in the South.” Journal of Southern History 38, no. 3 (August 1972): 365–392.

Jones, Beverly W. “Mary Church Terrell and the National Association of Colored Women, 1896 to 1901.” Journal of Negro History 67, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 20–33.

Jones, Robert B. “Defenders of ‘Constitutional Rights’ and ‘Womanhood’: The Antisuffrage Press and the Nineteenth Amendment in Tennessee.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 71, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 46–69.

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.

McRae, Elizabeth Gillespie. “Caretakers of Southern Civilization: Georgia Women and the Anti-Suffrage Campaign, 1914–1920.” In “Georgia Women: Perspectives on Class, Race, and Ethnicity.” Special issue, Georgia Historical Quarterly 82, no. 4 (Winter 1998): 801–828.

Sims, Anastatia. “‘Powers that Pray’ and ‘Powers that Prey’: Tennessee and the Fight for Woman Suffrage.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 50, no. 4 (Winter 1991): 203–225.

Taylor, A. Elizabeth. “A Short History of the Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 2, no. 3 (September 1943): 195–215.

Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850–1920. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Varon, Elizabeth R. We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill. New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill, ed. Votes for Women! The Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee, the South, and the Nation. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press,1995.

Wilkerson-Freeman, Sarah. “The Second Battle for Woman Suffrage: Alabama White Women, the Poll Tax, and V. O. Key's Master Narrative of Southern Politics.” Journal of Southern History 68, no. 2 (May 2002): 333–374.

Part of a series of articles titled The 19th Amendment and Women's Access to the Vote Across America.

Last updated: April 10, 2019