This is the first part of a two part series on the fight for woman suffrage in Virginia. Stay tuned as we commemorate the centennial of the 19th amendment’s passage.
Virginia’s first known organization to advocate woman suffrage was the Virginia State Woman Suffrage Association (VSWSA) formed in May 1870 with New Jersey born Anna Whitehead Bodeker as its president. Bodeker led the organization’s female and male members from 1870 to 1872 in an effort to gain public backing for woman suffrage. Among the organization’s prominent male members was federal judge John C. Underwood who had proposed votes for women in 1868. Although the VSWSA brought influential women like Susan B. Anthony to Virginia, it failed to gain enough supporters. Fearlessly, in 1871, Bodeker showed up at a polling site in Richmond, wanting to vote in a municipal election. When officials foiled her attempt to place her vote in the ballot box Bodeker put a note in the box asserting her federal constitutional right to vote.
Lynchburg resident Ora Henderson Moore Gray Langhorne formed the next woman suffrage organization. Not long after the Civil War ended she had begun advocating for post-war appeasement, female suffrage and improvements for blacks. Langhorne wrote articles in newspapers at the local, regional and national levels. By 1881, she was writing a column in Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute’s (Hampton University)
Southern Workman. Langhorne was way ahead of her times with her opinions on racial collaboration and educational prospects for black Americans. She even petitioned the state legislature two times claiming women’s voting rights in presidential elections. Her 1880 petition asked the General Assembly to “take ‘steps to so amend the constitution as to establish the equal rights of citizens irrespective of sex.’” In 1893, Langhorne founded the Virginia Suffrage Society (later the Virginia Suffrage Association). However, by 1900 problems within the society, insufficient membership, and Langhorne’s ill health dealt death blows to the society, dissolving it.
Not to be quieted, Langhorne continued her struggle for suffrage by writing, speaking, and becoming a delegate to conventions of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). She was a vice-president of the NAWSA. In 1896, Langhorne together with other NAWSA members testified before a U.S. Senate committee hearing on suffrage. Remaining hopeful, she wrote her last report to the association: ‘”There is a steady increase of progressive sentiment in the State, particularly with the young people.’” Like Bodeker, Langhorne brought to Virginia nationally recognized suffragists like Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt. And as with Bodeker her progressive endeavors failed to win votes for women. These women were working against the social norms of a woman’s place in the home—her domestic sphere. Men, who were in the public sphere, represented the family outside the home and in politics.
The third organization to fight for woman suffrage was the Virginia Equal Suffrage League (ESL). On November 20, 1909, a group of prominent Richmond women met at the Crenshaw House (919 West Franklin Street). They were eager to form a group with the mission of securing the vote for Virginia’s women. The result was the ESL. Among the founding members were host Anne Clay Crenshaw, reformer Lila Meade Valentine, artists Adele Clark and Nora Houston, and writer Ellen Glasgow. Houston later wrote that the women left the Crenshaw House two at a time to avoid questions as to what they were doing.
By 1919, the ESL had more than 30,000 members. The ESL along with the Men’s ESL used rallies like the one at Richmond’s Capital Square in May 1915 as a strategy. With their artistic talents, Clark and Houston promoted the cause through their posters, banners, leaflets and postcards. The two distributed these promotional items at county fairs, schools and town meetings. Clark and Houston also set up their easels at rallies, city parks and at street corners where they would speak about woman suffrage to the curious onlookers.
In 1912, the Virginia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (VAOWS), affiliated with the national association (NAOWS), began its anti-suffrage campaign with pamphlets and broadsides. The NAOWS and VAOWS argued that (1) most women did not want the right to vote and (2) women thought men correctly represented their political will. These groups supported America’s cultural norms—norms which were changing. That in itself posed a threat to the associations.
Undaunted, in 1912 the ESL began broadening its reform efforts, calling for equal pay for equal work, university education for women, an 8-hour work day, and the abolition of child labor. These endeavors helped Virginia women step outside the traditional domestic sphere to enter the realm of politics, progressive reform and ultimately feminism. ESL members asked: “Why should a mother not have the ability to influence the conditions in which her children are raised?”
The all-white ESL like other suffrage groups tried to sideline black women. For instance, the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., did not include southern black women, albeit northern women like Ida Wells-Barnett, a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), marched. Another founding member was Virginia’s Coralie Franklin Cook. As an educated, professional and middle-class black woman, she reminded white women that they could not discount the political rights of the less privileged. In August 1915, Cook published “Votes for Mothers” in the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis. She wrote:“Disfranchisement because of sex is curiously like disfranchisement because of color.”
Anonymous. “Coralie Franklin Cook.” https://www.monticello.org/getting-word/people/coralie-franklin-cook, accessed April 8, 2020.
Anonymous. “The Lasting Legacy of Suffragists at the Lorton Women’s Workhouse,” March 21, 2018.
https://folklife.si.edu/magazine/lasting-legacy-of-suffragists-at-lorton-occoquan-womens-workhouse, accessed April 8, 2020.
Anonymous. “National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Association_of_Colored_Women%27s_Clubs, accessed April 8, 2020.
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https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/ida-b-wells-barnett, accessed April 7, 2020.
Lange, Allison. “National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs,” Fall 2015.
http://www.crusadeforthevote.org/nacw, accessed April 7, 2020.
Spradley-Kurowski, Kelly. Department of Historic Resources. “Notes on Virginia: The Equal Suffrage League.
https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/SlideShows/CrenshawHouse/CrenshawSlide4b.html, accessed April 7, 2020.