An unfinished movement: Reflecting on 100 years of women’s suffrage in Georgia

View of the Atlanta equal suffrage float in a 1913 civic parade in Atlanta, Georgia, with (front, left to right) Mamie Matthews, Eli A. Matthews, (back, left to right) Amelia R. Woodall, Margaret Koch, and Kate Koch. The car pictured was probably manufactured by Stevens-Duryea. (Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center / used with permission)

Credit: Atlanta History Center

Credit: Atlanta History Center

On Jan. 29, 1895, just two days before 93 delegates from 28 states convened in Atlanta for the 27th National American Woman Suffrage Association’s convention, The Atlanta Constitution asked Georgians how they felt about the cause for women’s suffrage.

“Some of them smiled, some laughed, some blushed, some looked grave, others sour, and some of them looked (sic) unutterable things. A great many said they were emphatically against it,” the paper reported.

The Greensboro Herald — now the Herald Journal — of Greensboro, Georgia, announced a partial endorsement of the cause, saying it would certainly favor votes for women “were it not for the presence of Negro women in the South.” And only one Georgia newspaper, the Atlanta weekly Sunny South, declared its full support.

More than two decades later, when the federal amendment to confer women’s suffrage went to the states for ratification, Georgia was the first to reject it.

And 100 years ago, on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was officially ratified, granting select women — namely white women — the right to vote, Georgia cited a rule requiring all voters to register six months before an election (a rule most other states waived) to deny its women the chance to participate in the 1920 presidential election. They would have to wait another two years to cast their votes in state elections — and another 48 years for Georgia to officially ratify the amendment in 1970.

The centennial anniversary of the amendment’s ratification this year, women’s rights and voting rights advocates say, offers an opportunity to reflect upon the fraught history of the women’s suffrage movement in Georgia — and examine current efforts empowering more women to get politically engaged.

The South’s racial divide

Suffragettes ride a float at the New York Fair in Yonkers on Aug. 10, 1913. (Library of Congress)

Credit: Library of Congress

Credit: Library of Congress

In the years leading to the amendment’s passage in 1920, leaders of national women’s suffrage movements grew internally divisive over race issues but largely maintained their opposition to the South’s unyielding majority support for segregation. As a result, Southern women’s suffrage groups were slower to organize.

Georgia’s first and most prominent pro-suffrage group, the Georgia Woman Suffrage Association (GWSA), was heralded by Columbus resident Helen Augusta Howard, who eventually convinced the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to hold its 1895 convention in Atlanta — the first national meeting held outside of Washington, D.C. The GWSA — now the League of Women Voters of Georgia (LWVG) — initially denied membership to Black women and denied them entry to the Atlanta convention.

Though Black women were instrumental in the national movement for women’s suffrage, many national women’s organizations like the League of Women Voters and NAWSA allowed regional chapters to reject Black women in order to gain new support from Southern states. And when Southern Black suffragists sought help from their white counterparts within the national movement, they were told that it was an issue of race and not of gender.

It wasn’t until March 27, 1956, that the Georgia league decided to make sweeping changes to its bylaws.

ExploreRemembering suffragettes with Georgia ties as 19th Amendment turns 100

According to author Susan E. Whitney’s 1995 book, “The League of Women Voters, Seventy-Five Years Rich: A Perspective on the Woman’s Suffrage Movement and the League of Women Voters in Georgia,” the ripples began during an Atlanta/Fulton chapter meeting when a newly transferred constituent from the North “rose from her seat and said in a clear, strong voice, ‘I see that your bylaws do not conform to the National League’s. Yours state that any white woman may be a member. I move that the word white be struck.’”

The motion to strike “white” from the Georgia league’s bylaws passed, leading several members to resign. Four Black women immediately joined the Atlanta chapter, including former Atlanta City Council member Myrtle Davis and Grace Hamilton, the first Black woman elected to the Georgia General Assembly.

Years of ongoing exclusion also led to separate coalitions dedicated to Black issues, such as the National Association of Colored Women, which was committed to uplift all Black Americans. While Black men had officially won the right to vote in 1870 with the 15th Amendment, grandfather clauses, incorrigible literacy tests, felon disenfranchisement, high poll taxes — not to mention ongoing threats of violence — still prevented them from casting their votes. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices, that Black voters were fully enfranchised.

“The idea that white women have only had the right to vote for 100 years — that some of our oldest Americans were born before women’s suffrage — shouldn’t be forgotten,” says Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie. “But it’s also important to realize that there were Black men and women in the South who weren’t going to get that right to vote in any meaningful way” for at least another three decades.

The exact wording of the 19th Amendment — “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” — also excluded Native Americans, Asian Americans and women in U.S. territories, all groups that had not yet been granted American citizenship status. Legislation decades later remedied such exclusions.

“We have to have authentic conversations about how we arrived at this moment,” says Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Democratic candidate for Georgia governor and founder of the voting rights group Fair Fight Action. “If we do not understand how complex the suffragette movement was, then we are doomed to repeat some of its failings.”

It’s not that the larger movement was “evil,” she adds. “But it was incomplete, because it wasn’t inclusive. Our history isn’t something you can summarize in a Schoolhouse Rock medley.”

Leveling the political landscape

Suffragettes parade in Washington, D.C., on April 5, 1917. (Library of Congress)

Credit: Library of Congress

Credit: Library of Congress

With the Nov. 3 elections just around the corner, grassroots organizers and educators throughout the state are finding creative new ways to inform and mobilize women in the middle of a pandemic.

To longtime LWVG board member Linda Rigby-Bridges, that means ensuring that every eligible voter has access to information.

“When you have a state with 159 counties, sometimes the messaging gets lost,” she says.

Every year, members of the nonpartisan grassroots group’s more than 15 chapters put together voter guides complete with customized lists of candidates and local issues, distributed across the state at college fairs, local offices and in newspapers.

This year, the league has also planned Equality Week 2020, which kicks off Saturday, Aug. 22, with a “Power of the Vote” event. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and celebrate the “first step for women toward equality,” organizers have set up virtual panels with local journalists, historians, educators and civic leaders such as former Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore.

Stephanie Evans, professor and director of the Institute for Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Georgia State University, is helping organize another virtual event to foster ongoing discussions on race, gender and the vote. A session on Oct. 23 will feature speakers on the history of suffrage and our current political moment.

Spelman College professor Marilyn Davis, who teaches courses on the power of intersectional feminism and on women in leadership, believes a lack of confidence often keeps women from even considering politics.

“They often feel certain voters wouldn’t support them. And it can be men, but it can also be female voters, especially in our religious institutions,” she says. “... Many have been socialized to accept the norm of male patriarchal leadership.”

Data from the Brookings Institute, using research conducted in 2008, found that while women are less likely to be encouraged to run for office, when they do run, they actually perform just as well as men.

“That’s not to say that women don’t have different expectations put on them because of their gender or that they don’t face challenges unique to their gender when they run for office,” says Emory’s Gillespie. “But basically, if you can put a well-qualified, well-funded woman in a position to run for office, her chances are basically the same as a man’s. And part of the reason we saw an increase in women in Congress was because more women ran.”

A century after the country passed the 19th Amendment, there are 127 voting women in Congress, the most there have ever been. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, 48 of the 127 women are women of color. That includes U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, a Democrat who represents Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in suburban Atlanta. This year, she’s running again against Karen Handel, the Republican she unseated in 2018.

John Lewis’ 5th Congressional District seat also will feature two women in the Nov. 3 election: Democrat Nikema Williams, a state senator and chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, faces Republican Angela Stanton-King.

This election cycle also includes U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican who’s running to keep the seat to which Gov. Brian Kemp appointed her after Sen. Johnny Isakson retired for health reasons.

In Georgia, which has seen a record number of women running for office since 2016, only six of the state’s 29 cities with populations of more than 30,000 people have women serving as mayor. And only one of Georgia’s five most populous counties has a woman chair.

Voting rights advocates have cited problematic evidence of systemic disenfranchisement in recent years. In 2013, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated key aspects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, allowing states, including Georgia, to change their election laws without advance federal oversight. This includes changes to voter identification laws, to redistricting and to early voting restrictions.

And Georgia, now a presidential battleground state for the first time in a generation, is once again at the epicenter of a national conversation around voter suppression. Following the state’s primary elections in June, voters reported hourslong lines at polling sites and missing or malfunctioning voting machines.

Abrams’ own absentee ballot arrived with a sealed return envelope. She was unable to mail it back in time.

“We always have to be very careful that progress is not absolute,” she says. “Victory does not mean that this is permanent.”

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