Over the past few weeks, we’ve been looking back at the campaign by which women won the right to vote — culminating with the 19th Amendment being added to the U.S. Constitution on Aug. 26, 1920.
Today, we look at what’s happened since.
The first thing that happened was there was a mad rush to register women before that year’s presidential election (eventually won by Republican Warren Harding).
A new book by three researchers at the Library of Virginia — “The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia” by Brent Tarter, Marianne E. Julienne and Barbara C. Batson — does a masterful and painful job of showing that part of the story.
We say painful because it illustrates quite clearly how the state went to great lengths to prevent Black women from registering to vote. One of the arguments against women’s suffrage in the South was that it would allow Black women to vote. Southern states had pretty efficiently disenfranchised Black men already but they were still terrified about Black women. The book shows how that played out in Virginia. White women were registered with little fuss (although a few registrars did resign in protest). But registrars did their best to prevent Black women from registering. White women went to the head of the line; Black women had to wait hours. White women were given forms to fill out; Black women were given blank forms and had to guess at what information was required. White women were asked simple questions while Black women were grilled on obscure details of American government — and then rejected. When telling the history of the Jim Crow era, we often simply say that Black voters were disenfranchised; this book shows in detail exactly how that happened.
The other thing that happened after women got the vote was that some had the temerity to take the next logical step — and start running for office. This began the following year, 1921. Lillie Davis Custis of Accomack County became the first woman to run for governor. She was a “self-described independent socialist” and polled just 227 votes — 0.11% — but still earned her place in history. In 1993, Democrat Mary Sue Terry made history as the first woman nominated by a major party for governor (she lost). Two other Democrats — Jennifer Carroll Foy and Jennifer McClellan — hope to make history next year as the first Black woman nominated for governor by a major party in Virginia. But they all follow in the footsteps of Lillie Davis Custis — or, as she was apparently listed on the ballot that year, “Mrs. George Custis.”
Two other women were on the ballot that year for superintendent of public instruction — an office Virginia elected then but no longer does. Elizabeth Otey of Lynchburg — one of the state’s best-known suffragist campaigners — was the Republican nominee. That was, unfortunately, the year Virginia Republicans tried to purge themselves of all their Black members. Until then, most Black voters had been Republicans — a legacy of the Party of Lincoln. In the South, that was something segregationist Democrats used against Republicans, with great success. In a bid to win more white votes, Republicans cast aside their Black supporters. In response, Black Republicans fielded their own ticket —with Richmond banker Maggie Walker as the candidate for superintendent of public instruction. The Democratic incumbent won handily — with about two-thirds of the vote — but Otey still goes down in history as the first woman nominated by a major party in Virginia for statewide office. The second was Hazel Barger of Roanoke, who was the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in 1961. She lost, as well. Otey was also the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate in Virginia; she ran as a Socialist in 1933 — and won 0.7% of the vote. (This after running previously as a Republican!) In the century since women got the vote in Virginia, only one woman has won a statewide general election — Terry, who won twice for attorney general, in 1985 and 1989.
In this respect, Virginia does not fare well at all. In fact, Virginia is one of the worst states in the country for the number of women it has elected to office. Virginia now has its first female Speaker of the House in Eileen Filler-Corn and its first female House Majority Leader in Charnielle Herring — but overall only 28.6% of Virginia’s state legislators are women. We’re not the worst — that’s West Virginia at 14.2% — but still, most states have more, sometimes a lot more. In Nevada, 52.4% of the state legislators are women. If our government truly looked like the governed, all state legislatures would look something like Nevada’s. The states with the most number of women in their state capitals are in the West —Nevada is followed by Colorado at 47%, Washington at 41.5% and Oregon and Vermont at 40% — while the states with the least are generally in the South. Curiously, that matches the original support for the 19th Amendment — which started as a western movement and found almost no success in the South.
In 1921, the first state elections after ratification, at least eight women ran for the House of Delegates. They all lost — either in nomination contests or the general election. In 1923, though, two women won election to the House of Delegates — Sarah Fain of Norfolk and Helen T. Henderson of Buchanan County, both Democrats. They were treated as celebrities when they arrived in Richmond — with flowers on their desks and special dinners in their honor. Henderson passed away before she could seek a second term; Fain was so popular that she thought about running for lieutenant governor in 1925 and 1929 but didn’t. How might history have been changed if she had?
Curiously, while there weren’t many women elected to the General Assembly, four of the first five came from western Virginia. After Fain and Henderson, Sallie Cook Booker of Martinsville was elected to the House in 1925 and 1927. Nancy Melvina “Vinnie” Caldwell of Galax was elected in 1927. So was Helen Ruth Henderson of Buchanan County — daughter of Helen T. Henderson.
Today, though, Southwest Virginia’s delegation is all-male; there are no female legislators west of Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County. Many local boards remain all-male. Some notable exceptions: Roanoke, Blacksburg and Montgomery County all have governing boards that consist of four women and three men. Salem just elected its first female mayor. Roanoke has never had a woman as mayor.
Would the suffragists of 1920 have expected more?
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!