How women got the vote, in spite of Georgia

Suffragists spent decades fighting entrenched Southern culture

One hundred years ago, the 19th Amendment opened the door for Georgia women to vote and hold public office.

It came more than 70 years after hundreds gathered in Seneca Falls, N.Y., for a convention that lay the groundwork for the women’s suffrage movement, and years after western states began allowing women to cast ballots.

The vote was not, however, welcomed in Georgia.

Even though it was Tennessee that provided the deciding vote to add the amendment to the Constitution, many Southern opponents saw women’s suffrage as a poison from the Northeast that threatened the core tenets of life below the Mason-Dixon line.

Movement adherents had tried long and hard to change public opinion in Georgia, but were largely unsuccessful. In their campaign to build support in the South, national suffragist leaders had battled other women, most men, politicians and entrenched ideas of male chivalry. They had courted white supremacists, ignored a parallel voting rights effort from Black women and sidelined Black allies like Frederick Douglass.

Still, in August 1920, when the amendment was finally ratified by three-quarters of the 48 states in the union, it would be with no help from Georgia.

It would take another half century for the state — which today has more women registered to vote than men and recently recorded its highest ever number of female candidates for office — to formally approve what was already happening.

“May our Southern women remain on the pedestal, forever preserve that distinctive deference which is theirs so long as they remain as they are — our highest ideals of the true, the beautiful and the good.”

-James Callaway, The Macon Telegraph, 1919

At the turn of the 20th century, many Georgians thought women had all the rights they needed and should not concern themselves with the dirty world of politics. A female’s business was running her home.

The suffrage movement, which had emerged in the Northeast in the mid-1800s, experienced the most headwinds in the South, said Marjorie J. Spruill, an emeritus professor of history at the University of South Carolina.

Members of the National Woman Suffrage association were featured on the cover of the March 11, 1914, edition of The Atlanta Journal, when they visited Atlanta on their tour of southern states. The visitors met at the Georgian Terrace with members of an Atlanta delegation in a closed-door session.

Credit: AJC archive

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Credit: AJC archive

The opposition stemmed from the movement’s origins in abolitionism. Those who fought against slavery helped shaped the suffrage campaign.

That connection did not go unnoticed by white Southerners, who were deeply suspicious of Northerners following the Civil War.

The political establishment was “against it right from the beginning,” said Spruill, author of the book “New Women of the New South” about the region’s suffrage leaders. “They said these suffragists don’t understand the Southern way of life.”

When some small suffrage groups emerged in a few Georgia cities toward the end of the 19th century, participants were often met with hostility from their neighbors and family.

It didn’t matter that the groups were all white and had no interest in changing the lot of Black women. “The ideal they had grown up with was of the Southern lady who certainly didn’t need the vote because she could wrap any man around her little finger,” said Spruill.

Many of the harshest critics of suffrage were women, such as Mildred Lewis Rutherford, the well-known head of the Lucy Cobb Institute in Athens and a senior member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Many historians believe the majority of white women in the South were against suffrage at the time, and they were backed by influential white men and powerful industries that wanted to maintain the status quo.

Since enacting a new constitutional amendment required the support of three-quarters of the states, math dictated that suffragists win over at least some of the South. So the movement’s national leaders developed a strategy in the 1890s that sought to appeal to the the region’s ruling class.

Many officials were still livid about Reconstruction-era reforms forced upon the South. They were particularly angry about the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men — though not Black women — the right to vote in 1870, even though local governments obstructed that right at every turn.

Suffragists proposed that officials take care of their so-called “negro problem” by granting white women access to the ballot box. White women would likely vote with their husbands, suffragists argued, thereby blunting the votes of Black men, who were more likely to support Republicans — the party of Abraham Lincoln.

“The idea is that you play the numbers game,” said the Atlanta History Center’s Jessica VanLanduyt, who curated a recent exhibit on women’s suffrage. “You say, ‘White men, if you want to retain your power in the South, here’s a way to do so.’”

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place. And ain’t I a woman? "

— Sojourner Truth, 1851

In another bid to woo Southerners, the National American Woman Suffrage Association opted to hold its annual convention in Atlanta in 1895. The group’s president, Susan B. Anthony, dissuaded longtime ally Douglass, the Black abolitionist leader, from attending to avoid offending white participants.

White suffragists in Georgia, still small in number, weren’t shy about vocalizing their contempt that Black men had secured the vote before they did.

Mary L. McLendon drives a float for the Georgia Woman Civic Suffrage Association in a suffrage division of a parade held in Atlanta in 1913. McLendon was among White suffragists who voiced outrage that Black men gained the right to vote before White women. (Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center / used with permission)

Credit: Atlanta History Center

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Credit: Atlanta History Center

Speaking during a hearing at the General Assembly, Georgia Women’s Suffrage Association president Mary Latimer McLendon said, “The negro men, our former slaves, have been given the right to vote and why should not we Southern women have the same right?”

Meanwhile, Black women, locked out of the South’s white suffrage groups, were forming their own organizations to push for the vote.

Churches became a center of activity, as did the National Association of Colored Women. That organization’s national membership grew to 300,000 by the end of World War I.

The latter’s purview was broader than securing women’s suffrage. It fought Jim Crow laws, pushed anti-lynching legislation and aimed to safeguard the 15th Amendment.

Lugenia Burns Hope, second from right on the first row, was a leading Black suffragist during her years in Atlanta and was the co-founder of the Neighborhood Union, seen here in an undated photo. As the first vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Atlanta chapter, Hope helped create "citizenship schools," which taught Blacks how to get around barriers to voting. Hope was also active in the National Association of Colored Women, which became a powerful force for Black womens suffrage and civil rights. (Neighborhood Union Collection, Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library)

Credit: Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library

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Credit: Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library

White women trying to secure the vote thought of it as “the single most important thing to achieve,” said Georgia State University historian Lauren MacIvor Thompson, summarizing the national debate. “Black women saw the vote as important to achieve, but part of a constellation of rights that needed to be achieved to make them full citizens of the republic.”

Black women were involved from the early days of the suffrage movement in the Northeast. And several Southern Black women, including Ida B. Wells, carved out prominent roles on the national stage. But they did so from the North.

In the South, Black women faced a far different reality, said Johns Hopkins University history professor Martha S. Jones, author of the upcoming book “Vanguard,” about Black women’s fight for full voting rights.

If they were visible or outspoken, they were subjected to smear campaign and “labeled prostitutes or thieves,” Jones said.

An open secret, as the 19th Amendment was being debated, was that it wouldn’t preclude states from continuing to use Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise Black people.

Still, that wasn’t enough for Georgia’s elected officials. They wanted to defeat the measure not only in Georgia, but across the country.

“Strongest objection was found in the Southern states, and in none was opposition more bitter than in the State of Georgia.”

— A. Elizabeth Taylor, The Georgia Historical Quarterly

The General Assembly’s hearings on women’s suffrage, which began in 1914, were polite enough. But legislation was blocked in committee for years.

Male legislators’ resistance spilled into the open in summer 1919, when Congress approved the 19th Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification.

Suffragists had hoped to avoid embarrassment in Georgia by not holding a vote since they knew lawmakers wouldn’t approve it. But that was far from what happened.

Senate leaders devoted nearly a week of floor time toward voicing their opposition. Suffrage resolutions were introduced in both chambers of the Legislature with the express purpose of striking them down.

An unnamed Georgia assemblyman described the debate, saying, “Never in any legislative body have the opponents of a measure shown themselves so bloodthirsty and vindictive,” according to a 1923 book about the movement by suffragists Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler.

Movement leader Anthony was declared “the worst enemy the South ever had,” Catt and Shuler wrote.

Others suggested that adoption of the 19th Amendment would lead to a breakdown of the social — and racial — order and that newly empowered women would no longer see a need to marry or bear children.

The July 24, 1919, edition of The Atlanta Journal reported on Georgia's rejection of the 19th Amendment.

Credit: AJC archive

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Credit: AJC archive

Southern states had raced to become the first in the union to reject the measure. Georgia leaders succeeded in July 1919.

The amendment was rejected overwhelmingly in the Legislature, and Georgia leaders even schemed with their counterparts in the South to try and block ratification elsewhere, according to Spruill. That effort failed when 36 other states ultimately approved the amendment by the following summer.

“The men of (opposing) States left it to the generosity of the men of other States to enfranchise their own wives, mothers, sisters, daughters.”

— Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler, “Woman Suffrage and Politics,” 1923

Even after the 19th Amendment was added to the Constitution, in August 1920, Georgia continued to fight women’s access to the ballot.

The state refused to waive a requirement that voters register six months before an election, which blocked women from exercising their newfound rights until 1922.

The amendment’s adoption was only a starting point for Black women in the South, who had pushed hard for the vote. It put them on even ground with Black men, who constitutionally had the right to vote even though it was denied by poll taxes, literacy tests and other manifestations of Jim Crow.

Black women who had successful passed the tests trained other women on how to overcome voting hurdles, said Jones.

“Black women are doing that kind of work, even as they know that Southern lawmakers intend to try and use Jim Crow to keep them from the polls,” she said. “In some places, they will have success. ... But it’s a very uneven story.”

The biggest barriers for Black voters wouldn’t fall until 1965 when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

Meanwhile, many of the white women who had campaigned against suffrage began voting right away, according to Spruill.

“They wanted to have their points of view count — and perhaps balance out the votes of other new women voters who had been suffragists and were sure to try to vote,” she said.

Other former anti-suffragists who viewed politics as an ugly business took their time before registering to vote. Some never did.

When Georgia finally ratified the 19th Amendment, nearly 50 years after it had become the law of the land, the act was reported as a four-paragraph brief deep inside the Feb. 16, 1970 edition of The Atlanta Journal.

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It wasn’t until 1970 that the Georgia Legislature formally endorsed women’s suffrage, with both chambers symbolically passing the 19th Amendment that February. A new wave of feminism had taken root across the country, and many activists were beginning to discuss the possibility of a new addition to the Constitution: the Equal Rights Amendment.

Still, there was evidence that some old ways of thinking persisted.

“Are you a woman hater?” one male lawmaker joked with a colleague on the floor of the Georgia House as ratification of the 19th Amendment was being debated in early 1970. “Then, why do you want to drag them down to our level?”

“I only believe in equality,” the colleague responded.

It took 50 years, but the vote in both chambers of the General Assembly was unanimous.

AJC Archivist Sandi West contributed to this article.

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