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Commemorating 100 years: A look at state’s role in women’s suffrage movement

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Though North Carolina didn’t formally recognize voting rights for women until 1971, the state played an integral role in the women’s suffrage movement and the passage of the 19th Amendment.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote and serve in elected offices.

The fight for women’s suffrage began in the 19th century. The Seneca Falls Convention, held in New York in 1848, is widely acknowledged as the first organized effort to discuss civil rights for women. By the 1870s, women had begun pressuring lawmakers to adopt an amendment that would grant them voting rights.

Gertrude Weil, of Goldsboro, helped found North Carolina’s Equal Suffrage Association in the late 1800s, which saw little activity until it was formally recognized in 1913. By 1917, statewide membership exceeded 1,000 members. Weil was elected president of the state league in 1919.

The league advocated for a series of efforts to pass suffrage bills in the state, but those measures had been consistently tabled. Some bills were sent to the Committee on Insane Asylums — an action displaying what anti-suffrage legislators thought about the movement, said Kara Deadmon, a museum curator at the North Carolina State Capitol.

Deadmon said that anti-suffragists were primarily worried about what women would vote to change. For example, in a state where the textile industry was prevalent, there was a concern among anti-suffragists that women would want to better working conditions at mills and address the issue of using child labor.

Some notable locals involved with the movement include Mary Henderson of Salisbury, who was the daughter of a state representative. A January 1915 article from the Post noted Henderson was “in charge of the equal suffrage bureau established there.” She also was named vice chairman of the state’s Democratic committee in 1922 and served until 1930.

Additionally, Archibald Henderson Boyden, who served in the Confederate Army and eventually became a courier to Gen. R. F. Hoke, was another supporter of the movement and an active Democrat. Boyden has often been referred to as “Salisbury’s first citizen” by local historians because he served five terms as mayor in Salisbury beginning in 1902.

“Col. Boyden has always been in the vanguard of the armies of progress which have brought the South out of disaster into distinction and have placed North Carolina progressively foremost among the states of the old Confederacy,” stated a 1928 Salisbury Post article.

U.S. Sen. Lee Slater Overman, a Democrat from Salisbury, served from 1903 until his death in 1930. During that time, he was a member of various committees, including the Committee on Women Suffrage.

After decades of lobbying, the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, later known as the 19th Amendment, was passed by Congress in June 1919. The amendment was sent to the states for ratification in August 1920. When the North Carolina General Assembly met on Aug. 10, 1920, it was one of the last two states needed for federal ratification of the amendment. The other was Tennessee.

Deadmon said state lawmakers sent a telegram to the state of Tennessee asking not to ratify the amendment and vowed North Carolina wouldn’t either. But by Aug. 18, Tennessee ratified it, requiring all states to ensure voting rights for women.

North Carolina didn’t officially ratify the amendment until 1971. At that time, all other states had ratified the amendment, except Mississippi, Deadmon said.

Though a landmark piece of legislation, the amendment wasn’t a victory for all women; it only granted voting rights for white women. The decades-long fight for women gaining the right to vote and serve in office is intertwined in the fight for rights for all American women.

“It is important to note, while we commemorate the 19th and recognize its importance in our history, we use it to examine the full story of all North Carolina women, even those who did not mark the amendment as a victory,” Deadmon said.

Gary Freeze, a retired Catawba College history professor, noted a strong connection between suffragettes and urban society, as areas with urban development and lots of immigration saw larger movements. He added that the movement also had connections with various civic groups, including the local United Daughters of the Confederacy, which primarily included upperclass women.

Even in the Equal Suffrage League, membership was only extended to white men and women.

“The mainstream suffrage movement participated in racially discriminatory practices and even condoned white supremacist ideologies in order to garner support from Southern white women,” Deadmon said.

But women of color were still an integral force in the overall passage of the 19th Amendment. Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, part of the National Association of Colored Women, which was established in 1896, was a staunch supporter of the movement in North Carolina and advocated for the inclusion of Black women in the movement.

Brown also founded Palmer Memorial Institute in an area between Greensboro and Burlington in in 1902 known as Sedalia. The institute was designated for upperclass African Americans. The restored campus buildings are now the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum, which displays the contributions made by African American citizens to education in North Carolina.

Additionally, Native Americans born in the U.S. were declared citizenship in 1924, but they still weren’t guaranteed the right to vote.

Despite being active in the movement, women of color wouldn’t benefit until the Civil Rights Movement. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1975, which guaranteed the right to vote for all men and women regardless of race.

The act expanded in 1975 to include bilingual ballots in certain areas, which was a win for many Hispanic and Latinx women, Deadmon said.

“(The act) remains the single most effective piece of Civil Rights legislation ever passed by Congress,” she said.

She added that “She Changed the World: NC Women Breaking Barriers,” is an example of a modern-day initiative within the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources that provides awareness to how the 19th Amendment was not a complete victory for all women.

“The 19th, of course, should be celebrated as a landmark legislative decision,” Deadmon said. “But we should take a step back and realize that it was not a complete victory for all women and the fight for full equality for all women continued throughout the 20th century. It continues today.”

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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