ColumnsThe Suffragist

Suffrage Movement Faced Opposition as Vitriolic as Today’s Battles

As voting rights fights still rage

As President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting, he said, “The right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people, people as individuals, control over their own destinies.”

Perhaps that is why we are still arguing over voting restrictions. As I write, a three-judge panel is hearing arguments in Holmes v. Moore, a voter ID case regarding legislation from the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) that was blocked in February 2020.

During the century between the time when former slaves began pushing for women’s suffrage and the time when the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, women were vilified and abused for simply wanting to cast a ballot, something I dare say many of us take for granted today.

Look no further than political cartoons of the day for evidence where women were depicted as ugly, overweight and toothless. Voting rights for women were incorrectly linked to loneliness, anxiety, an inability to marry and more. Some cartoons depicted women wanting to vote being forcibly gagged.

According to multiple historical sources, arguments against women’s suffrage included assertations that politics is too dirty a world for women and that they would vote as their husbands told them to anyway, that men should be the voices for their entire family unit, the idea that more voters would be too much of an expense, that voting would distract women from duties like bearing children and keeping house, and, of course, that women are too emotional to vote.

Mecklenburg County’s voice resonates

Here in North Carolina, the anti-suffrage movement infiltrated all levels of government. In a Charlotte Observer editorial published in June 1920, sparked by a letter from James A. Bell, former Mecklenburg County chair of the Democratic party, the editors asserted with no evidence that the majority of the voters in the county — all men, of course — were against women’s suffrage. “This newspaper is distinctly of the opinion that at least 80 per cent [sic] of the voters in the county are opposed to woman [sic] suffrage and that the sentiment throughout the state against it is hardly of less proportion.”

Bell’s letter was itself sparked by a referendum in that year’s Democratic primary. He claimed that Gov. Thomas Bickett and Sen. Furnifold Simmons were also opposed to women’s suffrage “and so (are) many others high in the councils of the party.”

The editorial made it clear that if Mecklenburg County Democrats made a strong show of opposing suffrage for women the rest of the state would, too, stating, “pressure might be brought to bear in an indirect way against those who are trying to carry this proposition through the legislature …”

In August 1920, both Tennessee and North Carolina legislatures held special sessions and took up the issue of ratifying the 19th Amendment as the vote among the states stood at 35 having ratified and eight rejecting it. North Carolina rejected the amendment.

As I wrote in the first installment of this column in November: One Tennessee statesman, acting on advice in a note from his mother, was the deciding vote. After the vote, he reportedly hid in the attic of the state capitol, or, according to History.com, “Some say he crept onto a third-floor ledge to escape an angry mob of anti-suffragist lawmakers threatening to rough him up.”

The North Carolina General Assembly symbolically voted to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1971 more than 50 years after it mattered. Meanwhile, between racially motivated gerrymandering and attempts at voter ID laws, the NCGA persists in its efforts to prevent North Carolinians from exercising their right to vote.

Voting disputes of today

Last month, according to a press release, the North Carolina League of Women Voters “filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit that would remove individuals en masse from voter rolls in Mecklenburg and Guilford counties. The lawsuit, Judicial Watch v. North Carolina, et al., was filed in federal court earlier [in April] to force a purge of thousands of registered voters in the run-up to the general election in November.”

“This lawsuit is a despicable attempt to push a voter suppression agenda during a public health crisis,” says Allison Riggs, interim executive director and chief counsel for Voting Rights at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

On May 4, according to The News and Observer in Raleigh, a group of Democratic legal organizations filed a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina in an effort to loosen absentee voting rules since this year’s presidential election is being held during a global pandemic.

On April Fool’s Day, NCGA Senate Leader Phil Berger told WFAE that he’s not in favor of making mail-in voting easier for state voters. And, if history serves, that is no joke.

According to fivethirtyeight.com, voting by mail does not give either party an advantage and “both parties have enjoyed a small but equal increase in turnout.”

And, according to the MIT Elections Lab, “As with all forms of voter fraud, documented instances of fraud related to (vote-by-mail) are rare.”

The N.C. State Board of Elections has proposed several ways to make mail-in voting more feasible for voters, including making election day a holiday and not requiring postage on absentee ballots. The BOE also noted that if the state is going to allow all mail-in voting that it needs to decide soon as it will take a great deal of time and effort to prepare and mail the ballots.

While, traditionally, only 5% of voters in North Carolina vote via mail, that number is expected to rise this year. You can request an absentee ballot now via the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections website so you can be sure to exercise your right to vote in 2020.

suffrage
Cartoon by Ryan C., circa 1911.
suffrage
Cartoon by E.W. Guston
“Looking Backward” cartoon by Laura E. Foster, circa 1912.
suffrage
Cartoon courtesy of Library of Congress, date unknown
Cartoon courtesy of Library of Congress, date unknown
suffrage
Cartoon courtesy of Library of Congress, date unknown
Cartoon courtesy of Library of Congress, date unknown
Cartoon courtesy of Library of Congress, date unknown
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