Authors: Michael Taylor, Curator of Books, and Cat Jacquet, Professor of History, LSU
Most historical events were more complex than people today realize. For example, the women's suffrage movement in hindsight seems fairly straightforward: should women be allowed to vote, or not? A century after the debate, however, we have forgotten the depth of the argument that originally surrounded it. It is easy to assume that anyone who opposed suffrage did so because they were prejudiced against women or just old-fashioned and uncomfortable with change. But understanding the historical context in which people were operating – and their perspectives on gender, race, ethnicity, and social order, for example – allows us to move past a simplistic interpretation and uncover what really motivated and concerned people at this time.
Women's suffrage, it turns out, was about more than women walking into voting booths and casting ballots. For many people, women voting meant much, much more, and both sides imagined it would have tremendous repercussions, affecting, among other things, domestic relations, the economy, America's image abroad, and the survival of democracy. In the South, resistance had surprisingly little to do with women's liberation itself and was more concerned with longstanding issues about race and states' rights, as Louisiana senator Edward J. Gay discovered in 1918-19 when he had to decide whether to vote for or against the proposed 19th Amendment. Gay's constituents in Louisiana as well as people in other states sent him hundreds of letters, petitions, flyers, and essays, trying to sway his opinion on the suffrage vote. Today, these documents allow us to catch a glimpse of the complexity and intensity of the suffrage debates of the 1910s.
Studying the 19th Amendment in the context of the issues Senator Gay had to consider will introduce students to some of the challenges historians face. After completing this activity, students will understand the need to:
(*Adapted from "Information Literacy Guidelines and Competencies for Undergraduate History Students," American Library Association, 2013.)
More basic outcomes include:
Thirty-six documents related to women's suffrage have been selected from the Edward J. Gay III Congressional File, 1888-1921 (stacks location: Y:63-80, boxes 49-50). Flagging the letters in their original folders and boxes is useful if you wish to give students a sense of how an archival collection is organized. However, in our experience, students are easily distracted by surrounding material. We recommend using color photocopies of the documents and discussing archival organization separately. A packet of photocopies is available on request.
The numbers below correspond to the circled numbers at the top of the photocopies and scans.
1. Anna P. Sharpless, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Dec. 13, 1918. Argues that women pay taxes and therefore should be allowed to vote. Folder 429.
2. Viola Kaufman, Washington, D.C., Dec. 11, 1918. Lists dozens of countries where women could vote and points out that “Chinese, Indians, and Japanese who are fortunate enough to be born in the United States may vote against the enfranchisement of American women.” Folder 425.
3. C. A. McGregor, Pontiac, Illinois, Nov. 9, 1918. “After observing what our best women of the U.S. have done during the world’s war, I am sure they deserve suffrage.” Folder 422.
4. Mrs. Theodor Markle, Terre Haute, Indiana, Dec. 18, 1918. Fifteen states and one territory now have full suffrage; the shortest way to make it national is by a federal amendment. Folder 432.
5. William F. Aiken, Greenfield, Massachusetts, Dec. 11, 1918. Gay should vote for the suffrage amendment to stop the Democratic Party from being defeated in 1920. Folder 428.
6. Laura G. Lovett, Havre, Montana, Dec. 19, 1918. The author, Superintendent of Schools for Hill County, Montana, writes that not all states were as lucky has hers, which had already granted women’s suffrage. Some states made it harder to amend their constitutions and therefore needed a federal amendment. Folder 432.
7. Sara Lauter, Indianapolis, Indiana, Dec. 19, 1918. Encourages Gay to support the national amendment. Otherwise, women in Indiana will never be able to vote because of how hard it is to amend the state constitution. Folder 432.
8. Alma Slade, Chicago, Illinois, Dec. 9, 1918. A northerner with southern roots. Encourages the South to bury the states’-rights axe and fall in line regarding suffrage. Folder 423.
9. Pro-suffrage petition from women of East Baton Rouge Parish, no date. Folder 421.
10. Mrs. G. S. Prestridge, Shreveport, Louisiana, [1918?]. Resolution in support of suffrage because of women’s contributions to World War I and because many other countries had already granted it. Folder 429.
11. Petition from the St. Mary Parish Committee Joint Suffrage Campaign, 1919. Points out “the falsity of our position” in regard to “making the world safe for democracy” in World War I, but denying the right to vote to American women. Folder 421.
12. Clara Cook Helvie, Wheeling, West Virginia, Dec. 11, 1918. The author, a female Unitarian minister, feels that women should be awarded the vote because of their contributions to World War I. Folder 428.
13. Central Trades and Labor Council, New Orleans, Louisiana, no date. Encourages Gay to vote for the amendment “as a necessary war and reconstruction measure, and as a measure of simple justice to the women who have made sacrifice as great as any men have made during the period of the war.” Folder 432.
14. A. Caswell Ellis, Austin, Texas, 1919? The author, a professor of education and a Southern States'-Rights Democrat, urges Gay to vote for the suffrage bill because otherwise Americans will look bad at the Paris Peace Conference (“This nation cannot make intelligent people believe it is honest when it declares that it fights for democracy abroad, and at the same time denies representation in its government to half its adult population”). He also predicts that the Democrats will lose the western states and the 1920 presidential election if they do not support the amendment. Folder 436.
15. Mrs. A. C. McKinney, Ruston, Louisiana, May 27, 1919. “Many of the northern states, as you know, have granted their women Presidential suffrage. That can only mean that there will be a large Republican woman’s vote, and how are we southern [Democratic] women to help you southern men, if you won’t let us?” Folder 427.
16. Mrs. Ben M. Hanna and Miss Anna Hanna, Shreveport, Louisiana, Feb. 9, 1919. Telegram encouraging Gay to vote for the suffrage amendment so the Democratic Party won’t lose the 1920 Presidential election on account of northern Republican states having doubled their voter base by enfranchising women. Folder 420.
17. Margaret S. R. Farraday, Charleston, West Virginia, Dec. 7, 1918. Considers suffrage progressive. Emphasizes that her father was a Confederate veteran. Folder 422.
18. Clarence Poe, Raleigh, North Carolina, Feb. 5, 1919. Poe, president and editor of the Progressive Farmer, writes that Southern Democrats must support their party’s leader, President Wilson; that the South cannot defeat the amendment, only postpone it, thereby giving Republicans and Northerners the credit for passing progressive legislation; and that supporting the bill would add to the South’s “good name for progress and modern-mindedness.” Folder 442.
19. Bertha T. Munsell, Columbia, South Carolina, Dec. 12, 1918. The author was a Southerner who had lived in the West, where “women are equal partners with men,” and where she had “seen what excellent results have been brought about by men and women working shoulder to shoulder with the same interest in a common cause.” Folder 429.
20. J. C. Pugh, “Woman Suffrage Considered from a National and Local Standpoint… An Address to the People of the State of Louisiana.” Pugh, a Shreveport lawyer, favors women’s suffrage, but not if federally imposed. Folder 419.
21. Emma T. Ory of the Era Club, New Orleans, May 26, 1919. Argues that “the United States is a white man’s government” and that Southern women do not like being “grouped with the colored races,” who were largely disfranchised by Jim Crow laws. Folder 431.
22. Mary C. Sumner, New Orleans, Louisiana, Dec. 13, 1918. Writing on behalf of the Southern Association of College Women, she points out “the strange standard of values which attaches more importance to the opinion of the common, unskilled, even illiterate laborer and the negro man than to the judgment of intelligent, educated, and in many cases college trained women.” Folder 432.
23. “An Effort Opposing Woman Suffrage” (flyer). A list of reasons why granting women the right to vote would demoralize men. Folder 429.
24. Alex Walker, Braddock, Pennsylvania, May 23, 1919. Encloses a flyer listing reasons why granting women the right to vote would demoralize men, including reducing their wages. Folder 431.
25. Mrs. George Douglas Miller, Albany, New York, Feb. 8, 1919. “Self-government and any concept of States Rights are violated by the national suffrage bill... Woman is the dynamo of the ages. Making a man of herself cheapens and dwarfs her influence.” Attaches a flyer, “As a Man Thinketh.” Folder 431.
26. Alice Wadsworth, Washington, D.C., Feb. 7, 1919. Wadsworth, president of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, links feminism to socialism and Bolshevism. Folder 442.
27. Margaret Townsend Scully, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Feb. 6, 1919. “Every naturalized Socialist, Anarchist, pro-German and Bolshevik now has a vote. Is it right or safe to hand over the vote to their women also? They, and not the desirable women, are, and will be, the ones to use it.” Folder 442.
28. Louisa Davis [Washington, D.C., January, 1919?]. Writes on behalf of the District of Columbia Executive Committee of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Links suffrage to socialism. Folder 430.
29. Frances C. Hayes, Clinton, Iowa, May 16, 1919. Writing on behalf of the Iowa Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, Hayes defends states’ rights (Iowa voted against women’s suffrage in a 1916 referendum). Folder 435.
30. S. M. Brinson, Mar. 26, 1919. Brinson, U. S. Representative from North Carolina, writes, “I feel that the men should not burden the women with the cares and vexations incident to political life.” Folder 427.
31. John L. Burnett, Gadsden, Alabama, Mar. 26, 1919. Writer was a U.S. Representative. “I am willing to have prohibition and many other things controlled by the Federal Constitution, but as long as I remember conditions put upon us just after the Civil War, I shall never consent to any abridgement of the power of the States to regulate suffrage, further than has already been done.” Folder 427.
32. Caroline Patterson, Macon, Georgia, Jan. 1919. The author, president of the Georgia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, refers to the suffrage amendment as “a great menace to the South.” She points out that in 66 counties in Georgia, blacks outnumbered whites. Did she worry that acknowledging the federal government’s right to regulate suffrage was a tacit acknowledgment of the 16th Amendment and would also double the number of African-American voters? Folder 442.
33. [Draft of speech by Senator Edward Gay?], Feb. 10, 1919. The speaker favors giving women the right to vote, but does not want to do it now because of “the negro question” and concerns over Federal control of voting rights. Folder 420.
34. Eugene Anderson, Macon, Georgia, Jan. 7, 1919. A long letter by the president of the Georgia Alabama Business College complaining about “Freelovers, Feminists, Socialists” and African Americans; suffrage amendment will contradict Jim Crow laws and acknowledge Federal control of voting rights. Folder 430.
35. Louisiana legislative resolution against the Suffrage Amendment, Nov. 22, 1919. Lays out the states’-rights reasons for opposing women’s suffrage. Compares the U.S. federal government’s domination of the states to Prussia’s domination of Germany. Folder 420.
36. Frank Clark, Apr. 7, 1919. Clark, U. S. Representative from Florida, sees a national amendment on women’s suffrage as a violation of states’ rights and a return to the days of Reconstruction. “[T]his amendment… carries with it more woe than anything since the days when Pinchback [an African-American governor] was in power in Louisiana.” Folder 427.
In this activity, students pretend to be Louisiana senator Edward J. Gay, who in 1918-19 had to decide whether to vote for or against the proposed 19th Amendment, granting women full suffrage.
When introducing the activity, ask your students to quickly list their assumptions about why they think people in 1918 were pro-suffrage or anti-suffrage. Go around the room and have everyone discuss what they wrote down.
As a homework assignment, or in class if time allows, have your students read at least 10 of the 36 documents selected for this activity from the Edward J. Gay Congressional File, being sure to read a range of viewpoints. Ask the students to summarize the debate in an essay or class discussion.
To guide your students' exploration of the documents, select from the following questions or come up with questions of your own:
What reasons did people give for granting women the right to vote? Include direct quotes.
What reasons did people give for denying women the right to vote? Include direct quotes.
What were the simplistic views for or against giving women the vote? What were the more complex ones?
How do ideas about woman’s proper place or proper role inform either or both sides of the debate? Give specific examples.
How does nativism and/or racism inform either of both sides of the debate? Give specific examples.
What issues mattered the most to men, women, Southerners, etc.?
Did people outside the South understand why a Southern senator might vote against women’s suffrage?
What role did the First World War have in this debate?
How did party politics come into play?
Were there other issues that came up in your readings of the documents? Other reasons (not listed above) why people supported or opposed woman suffrage?
Did anything surprise you about the documents that you worked with?
What parallels exist (if any) between this situation and politics today?
At some point in class, consider discussing documents 14 and 35, which sum up the complexity of the suffrage debate and the challenges historians face. The documents are examples of both sides of the debate using variations of the same argument. In document 14, A. Caswell Ellis, a professor from the University of Texas and self-proclaimed Southern States’-Rights Democrat, urges Senator Gay to support the suffrage amendment because, in the wake of World War I, "This nation cannot make intelligent people believe it is honest when it declares that it fights for democracy abroad, and at the same time denies representation in its government to half its adult population." Meanwhile, the Louisiana legislature, which had just implemented Jim Crow laws, passed the following resolution (document 35):
"Whereas, this first violation of state integrity [the 15th Amendment, African-American suffrage] has injuriously affected the political liberty and material welfare of only one section of the Nation, it is only too clear a guide what will happen to the whole people when state government is destroyed, the Union becomes an empire, controlled, dominated and governed by one section, as Germany by Prussia, the laws made at one place in ignorance and indifference to the local well-being of those in another too distant to influence their making... Whereas, the blood and treasure of the people is being justly and freely poured out to make the world safe for democracy... Whereas this principle is boldly violated in this Federal attempt to impose franchise laws on the states, now, therefore, be it resolved, by the House of Representatives of the people of Louisiana, the Senate concurring, that the Congress of the United States be hereby memorialized to reject the so-called Miss Susan B. Anthony Amendment to the Federal Constitution." [emphasis added]