[This blog post was written by Donna E. Kelly, Head of Special Collections.]
The State Archives of North Carolina has put together a display of 10 archival documents and other items relating to women’s suffrage, including the original copy of the Nineteenth Amendment sent to North Carolina for ratification in June of 1919. Usually housed in the vault, this document (along with anti-suffrage and pro-suffrage propaganda, hand-held fans, facsimiles of legislation and political cartoons, and a suffragist’s sash) will be traveling around the state from August 22, 2019 through November of 2020.
The exhibit, titled “An Absolute Moral Certainty”: The Woman Suffrage Movement in North Carolina, consists of three panels: “Early Efforts Supporting Suffrage for Women,” “Post-War Opposition to Suffrage for Women,” and “Suffrage for All Women.” The title of the exhibit comes from a quote out of Gov. Thomas W. Bickett’s address to the joint session of the General Assembly on August 13, 1920, in which he urges legislators to ratify the amendment.
This display is part of a 15-month long DNCR commemoration of women gaining the right to vote. Titled, “She Changed the World: North Carolina Women Breaking Barriers,” it highlights the accomplishments of women across the centuries. A kickoff event at the State Capitol is planned for Saturday, September 7, 2019. For more information visit https://bit.ly/2L7qsp8.
In addition to the traveling exhibit, the State Archives is also conducting an oral history project to interview 100 women from across the state who have made significant contributions in areas like government/politics, education, STEM, culture, athletics, activism, or entrepreneurship. For more information about how to get involved visit https://bit.ly/2kfvXIZ.
Additional resources pertaining to women’s suffrage are found in the North Carolina Digital Collections, a collaborative project between the State Library and the State Archives. To view those resources, visit https://bit.ly/2zvbRhP.
“An Absolute Moral Certainty”: The Woman Suffrage Movement in North Carolina
The National Woman Suffrage Association, founded by Susan B. Anthony, began pressuring Congress in the 1870s to amend the Constitution to guarantee women’s right to vote. Even though that effort failed, several states and territories granted suffrage through their state constitutions. North Carolina’s chapter of the Equal Suffrage Association, formed in 1894, had the same goal. The first attempt to grant women suffrage in North Carolina came in February of 1897 when J. L. Hyatt, a Republican from Yancey County, introduced a bill in the state senate. Legislators referred it to the Committee on Insane Asylums because Hyatt chaired that committee. The bill, which never made it out of committee, was eventually tabled and no action was taken.
At the turn of the twentieth century, activity to promote women’s suffrage subsided until 1913. Among others, Gertrude Weil (1879–1971) of Goldsboro helped establish local chapters of the Equal Suffrage Association. She served as president and fought tirelessly for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. She went on to serve as president of the League of Women Voters and lived to see the amendment finally ratified in her home state on May 6, 1971, only a few weeks before her death on May 30, 1971.
Pro-suffrage efforts by the Equal Suffrage Association included lobbying legislators, writing letters to state leaders, and distributing printed media (circulars, broadsides, and pamphlets) to support the cause. Long before e-mail, mass-produced form letters targeted certain audiences. Hundreds of letters were mailed to prominent residents of the state asking them to encourage their local representatives to support the amendment. Suffragists also wore sashes for rallies, parades, and street speaking.
The Equal Suffrage Association was not equal in the true sense of the word. It excluded African Americans, who began to assert their own political rights through churches, clubs, and suffrage societies. Women of color, like Charlotte Hawkins Brown, traveled extensively around the state promoting women’s suffrage and racial equality. She advanced education among her community and was a strong advocate of voter registration for all races of women.
Despite the concerted effort of suffragists, the 1915 legislature did not support the amendment, either as a state or federal constitutional amendment. The main opponents were white legislators from those counties with a sizeable African American population. They feared that people of color would be allowed to vote again, after decades of disenfranchisement. Using white supremacist tactics, some handbills warned Southern men to avoid even associating with women who were asking for equal suffrage, because giving women the right to vote would unleash “another period of reconstruction horror.”
After World War I, on the heels of substantial wartime contributions by women, members of the Equal Suffrage Association felt confident that the North Carolina legislature would ratify the amendment. However, that did not happen, and legislators thwarted other attempts to allow women to vote in primaries or municipal elections.
On January 10, 1918, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate approved the Nineteenth Amendment. To become law, 36 out of 48 states needed to ratify it. North Carolina’s General Assembly received its copy of the amendment on June 12, 1919. By that time 35 states had ratified it, so only one more state needed to approve it. All eyes were on North Carolina at the national level.
Over the course of the next year, anti-suffrage groups sprang into action. Mary Hilliard Hinton (1869–1961) of Knightdale founded a state branch of the Southern League for the Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment (Southern Rejection League). Backed by legislators who wanted to retain their seats in the General Assembly and textile owners who opposed child labor restrictions, this group was very active, using the same strategies as the pro-suffrage organizations. The States’ Rights Defense League formed in opposition to the federal amendment, asserting that it would destroy southern womanhood and disturb the American home. It also claimed that men would have to assume household duties.
Gov. Thomas W. Bickett called for a special session of the General Assembly to begin August 10, 1920 to vote on whether to ratify the amendment or not. At the start of the special session, 63 House members sent a Western Union Special telegram to the Tennessee General Assembly, dated August 11, 1920, urging them to reject the amendment. The telegram assured the legislators that North Carolina would not vote for women’s suffrage. It was a last-ditch effort to keep the Old North State from having to decide the fate of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.
Governor Bickett addressed the joint session of the General Assembly on August 13, 1920. He claimed that he personally opposed the amendment but realized the inevitability of its adoption. Therefore, he encouraged legislators to vote for it because ratification was “an absolute moral certainty” and “it would be the part of wisdom and of grace for North Carolina to ratify the amendment.”
After some debate, on August 17, 1920 the N.C. senate voted 25 to 23 to delay the matter until the 1921 session, on the grounds that they wanted enough time to discuss the matter with their constituents before voting. The bottom line was that they wanted to avoid making such a momentous and far-reaching decision. It became a moot point when Tennessee voted for ratification on August 18, 1920 and white women were granted the right to vote in the November 1920 election.
A few years later the Indian Citizenship Act asserted Native American women’s right to vote in 1924. African American women did not have a guaranteed right to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even though North Carolina’s legislature (and many of its residents) did not support the Nineteenth Amendment initially, and women already possessed the right to vote and had been exercising it, the General Assembly finally ratified it, albeit symbolically, on May 6, 1971. There was no dissension and it passed both houses unanimously.