How the South nearly killed women’s suffrage

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, when the right to vote in this country was extended to some women. Emphasis on some. There’s no question that the 19th Amendment was a major moment for voting rights, but a lot of women were left out.

Because of Jim Crow laws most Black women – especially in the South – couldn’t vote until 1965. And a lot of white women also couldn’t vote in 1920 in states like Mississippi that dragged their feet on enforcing/implementing the law.

The South played a huge role in nearly blocking the passage of the 19th Amendment – it passed by just one vote in Tennessee, the final state for ratification. And 50 years later, Southern women would play a major role in the death of the Equal Rights Amendment and the rise of both feminist and anti-feminist movements in the United States.

This week on the Reckon Interview, we examine the South’s role in larger movements for universal women’s rights. We also examine about how Black women have always at the forefront of movements for suffrage, civil rights, and the movements of today.

Our guests include Dr. Marjorie Spruill, professor emerita of History at the University of South Carolina, who has studied the long history of women’s suffrage and voting rights in the South. She tells us how male-led Southern states tried to kill the idea of the women’s suffrage, in part because of their hatred of Black suffrage, and how suffragists worked to rally support in the South for the 19th Amendment.

We also speak with Errin Haines, an Atlanta-area native and editor at large for The 19th*, a new nonprofit covering the intersection of gender, policy and politics.

Errin explains the importance of the asterisk in her organization’s name, how Black women have always led movements in the South and the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — the first we’ll commemorate without Congressman John Lewis.

Here are a few excerpts from our conversation with Dr. Marjorie Spruill to get you started. But you can listen to the whole episode here.

And go ahead and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast or wherever else you get your podcasts to stay informed about the South this election season.

Tomorrow, we’ll share portions of our conversation with Errin Haines.

Marjorie Spruill on how the national suffrage movement became divided by race

Pretty much all of the people who were working for woman’s suffrage or women’s rights before the Civil War were in the Northeast, some of them out in the Midwest. But all of them were for universal suffrage. But what happened was that when some of their allies, particularly the men, Wendell Phillips especially, said, “we can’t get both, we can’t get suffrage for the freedmen and include woman’s suffrage at the same time. We’re going to have enough trouble getting first the 14th and then the 15th amendment through Congress and getting it ratified. And if we attach this super controversial issue of women’s suffrage to it, we will probably not succeed.” And so it was at that point that the women who were supporting women’s suffrage and women’s rights and were supporting equal suffrage for everyone regardless of race or gender, had to make a tough choice about whether or not they were going to support the 15th amendment anyway. And one group led by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell and others formed the American Woman Suffrage Association headquartered in Boston. And again, even though they wanted woman’s suffrage badly, they said, as Lucy stone put it, if anyone can get out of this pit, meaning disfranchisement You know, I’ve got to support that. And Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were very upset that they were being asked not only to support the 15th amendment, they were being asked not to work for woman’s suffrage during that time. And to say, that’s going to have to wait for the future. “This is the negro’s hour,” was what Wendell Phillips said. And it was at that point, that Susan B. Anthony said to him in his office, “I’d rather cut off my right arm than work for suffrage for the Negro and not for the woman.” But they really wanted universal suffrage at that point.

Marjorie Spruill on why the South was the ‘nemesis’ of women’s suffrage

It had a lot to do with the fact that at the time women were trying to get the right to vote, I would say 1890 to 1920, is exactly the period of time in which white Southern conservatives were trying to reassert their control over the region. and they were extremely interested in cutting the number of people who were able to vote. And they saw the woman’s suffrage movement as — accurately — as a direct outgrowth of the anti-slavery movement. And even though white suffragists were doing their darndest to try to convince these men that controlled the region that Woman’s Suffrage was not a threat to white supremacy. They weren’t buying it. And they definitely saw it as a threat to white supremacy.

Marjorie Spruill on how some white women argued women’s suffrage restored white supremacy

They did this with the support and, in fact, at the suggestion of national American Woman Suffrage leaders because they realized that if they were ever going to get a 19th amendment or excuse me, a federal suffrage amendment, that they were going to have to have some Southern support. That you have to have two-thirds of each house of Congress. And then it has to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. You obviously have got to have some Southern support.

And so they were realizing that they were getting absolutely nowhere in the region. And in the 1890s, the period we’re talking, about Laura Clay of Kentucky, famously said, “you can work for 100 years and you’ll get nowhere unless you bring in the South.” And at that time, they were looking at Southern politics and thinking, “Okay, we’ve learned already that you can argue for the justice of woman’s suffrage till you’re blue in the face and get nowhere.” You have to have an argument, an expediency argument, something that will convince politicians that that this is going to be helpful rather than harmful to them.

And they actually got this idea initially from the husband of Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, who was an abolitionist, but he didn’t see that it was all that harmful to say, “don’t take the vote away from the men, from the Black men, just enfranchise all women, and then you will out vote.” Of course, what happened was that it was pointed out to all of them that the white and Black population is not equally distributed in every ward and county of the South. And there are lots of places where there’s Black majorities. And so then they started talking, “okay, property requirements that will do the job. That’ll make sure that most of the women who were enfranchised are white.” So that was the kind of thing that was happening in the 1890s.

And ultimately, the Southern politicians who were in control, just they didn’t want woman’s suffrage any more than they wanted Black suffrage. And so they found other ways, as we know, to do it through between 1890 and 1903, a series of constitutional conventions in Southern states or changes in their rules having to do with voting qualifications, including understanding clauses, literacy tests, property tests, poll taxes. And, in terms of the literacy or understanding clauses, definitely applied with discrimination against African Americans at the registrar’s discretion, and, you know, they had worried that Congress or the Supreme Court might not let them get away with it, but they did. And they let them get away with it all the way up until 1965. 

For more about the fight for Southern suffrage and the rise of anti-feminism in the South, listen to the full conversation here. And check out Dr. Spruill’s latest book, “Divided We Stand” for more on the national fight for women’s rights.

Tomorrow, the 19th*’s Errin Haines explains the role of Black women in the fight for suffrage and civil rights.

Reckon Interview Season 3

Episode One: The fight for the vote and how to ensure your vote counts

Episode Two: How the South created modern politics and what’s at stake in 2020

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