[This blog post was written by Josh Hager, Reference Archivist in the Reference Unit of the Collections Services Section.]
In celebration of Women’s History Month, the State Archives of North Carolina is proud to announce our new Search Room exhibit, “A Fight for Citizenship: The 19th Amendment and Women’s Suffrage in North Carolina.” The bulk of the facsimiles included come from the private collection of Gertrude Weil, a prominent suffragist from Goldsboro. She was active in organizations such as the North Carolina Equal Suffrage League, the Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the League of Women Voters. Her collection spans 42 cubic feet and over one-hundred boxes of material, constituting a treasure trove for researchers into the women’s suffrage movement.
The collections of the State Archives provide a wealth of material concerning women’s suffrage, from letters and broadsides to the correspondence of state and local officials. Narrowing those choices down to the ten items on display proved difficult, but the items selected allow for a glance at several important documents and themes.
Visitors will also see a facsimile of the 19th Amendment, specifically the cover page sent by the U.S. Secretary of State to the N.C. Secretary of State which includes an official seal. The amendment arrived in North Carolina’s hands in 1919 and the General Assembly first considered it in 1920. However, legislators did not hold an up-or-down vote on the amendment in 1920; historians agree that the amendment would likely have lost the vote based on the legislators’ stated positions. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee narrowly voted for the 19th Amendment, making women’s suffrage the law of the land nationwide. North Carolina did not ultimately ratify the 19th Amendment until 1971 under Governor Bob Scott. The only state to ratify it after North Carolina was Mississippi in 1984.
Letter from Josephus Daniels to Gertrude Weil, Feb. 12, 1920, Gertrude Weil Papers (PC.1488), State Archives of North Carolina
Visitors will also get a chance to look at the amount of work and dedication needed to make women’s suffrage a reality. Gertrude Weil’s personal efforts are on display through an organizational pamphlet where she was elected as an officer and through correspondence with Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to promote the cause. Photographs show women in a campaign office as well as at a public gathering wearing sashes for equality. “The Suffragist’s Calendar: A Year-book for Thinking Women” is a day-planner with helpful tips for political organization. Finally, the exhibit includes a letter from the leaders of two organizations asking for unity as women fought for the shared goal of the vote.
Amidst the triumphs of 1920, the exhibit also includes two examples of the opposition faced by the proponents of suffrage. Governor Thomas Bickett sent a message to the General Assembly in opposition to the 19th Amendment, arguing that women should not lower themselves to the political arena. His tone of social condescension was commonplace for 1920, but others in opposition held more unique views. For example, a petition to the General Assembly sent by a concerned citizen from Connecticut argued that women voting would increase ignorance at the polling place and that it was no better than a Soviet plot.
Western Union telegram from G.L. Grosgrove to the Speaker of the House on the topic of the 19th Amendment, General Assembly Session Records, 1920, State Archives of North Carolina
Despite the opposition, women in North Carolina and across the country gained the right to vote in 1920. We hope that our exhibit gives you a small window into the incredible people and organizations that fought for equality and succeeded. The exhibit is currently scheduled to run through the end of April, so please plan on visiting the Search Room soon.
Other archival items related to role of women in North Carolina’s 20th century history are available through the North Carolina Digital Collections.