Queen City Nerve

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The Suffragist: Remember the Ladies
The League wants you!

By Rhiannon Fionn

November 21, 2019

With its 100th anniversary coming next year, women’s suffrage in the United States is in the midst of a moment. Ladies, that means it’s time to remember those who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today, to recognize the impact we have in every election and to get thyself to the polls on Election Day 2020.

When the League of Women Voters CEO Virginia Kase spoke at a Harvard University event honoring the 19th Amendment’s big anniversary, as reported by a recent League of Women Voters post, she “reminded the audience of students and attorneys that women were not ‘granted’ the right to vote. ‘The hell they were! Women fought hard. It was a hard-fought battle’ to win the vote,” she said.

And she means it; 2020 might mark a century for our right to vote but it’s important to remember that many women were born and lived full lives while fighting for our rights, then died without being recognized by our government as voters. And as with most fights against injustice, especially here in the South, racism only added to the impediments, making it harder for black women to vote even when given the legal right.

The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan voting advocacy group born of the suffrage movement, is also celebrating a centennial in 2020, and Charlotte’s chapter is putting together programming for the community as well as planning a gala for Feb. 29.

League of Women Voters, 1927 (Photo courtesy of Duke University Archives)

But let’s pause a moment to put 100 years into perspective: That’s nothing on the timeline of humanity. Frankly, the fact that we’ve only had the vote for a century is stupefying. Dating back to the dawn of democracy in Greece and tracing through to our country’s Founding Fathers, those that made the laws excluded everyone who wasn’t white, male and wealthy.

In our state, the General Assembly waited until 1971 to symbolically ratify the 19th Amendment, which made women’s right to vote a constitutional right; that was 52 years after it was ratified by a majority of other states. In fact, North Carolina had a chance to be the Southern gentleman in this scenario, the hero so to speak — our state could have been the deciding vote on the 19th Amendment … but of course not.

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.”

Our state’s vote to ratify the amendment in the 1970s didn’t happen until one of N.C.’s suffrage leaders was on her deathbed. Gertrude Weil, then in her 90s, passed away 24 days after the vote. It wasn’t until she and others met in Charlotte in 1913 that the women here began to join the cause, even though the nationwide movement had been going on for 65 years by then.

During a recent visit to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library’s Carolina Room, local league members learned that the women of the Queen City didn’t want to be known as activists.

Members of the Charlotte League of Women Voters during a recent trip to the Carolina Room of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. (Photo by Rhiannon Fionn)

Why, you might wonder, did it take our state — including its women — so long to come around to the reality that women have the right to vote in the United States? Racism, plain and simple. Also, this whacky idea that men spoke for their entire families in the voting booth. [Look around your Thanksgiving table this year and think about the men in your family being your only public voice.]

But we’ll get into all that in future columns on this topic. Queen City Nerve and the Charlotte League of Women Voters are partnering for the next year to bring y’all a monthly flow of women’s suffrage history, news about what the League is up to today and how women continue to impact elections.

With that, I’ll leave you with a trivia tidbit: In the early-20th-century U.S., the women protesting for their right to vote didn’t like to be called “Suffragettes,” something local historian and fellow League of Women Voters member Cate Stadelman corrected me on recently. She explained women here wanted to distance themselves from the more violent suffrage movement in the United Kingdom. So, in the U.S. it’s suffragist, Ms. Suffragist if you nasty.

This column is the result of a partnership between Queen City Nerve and the Charlotte League of Women Voters. Visit their site to learn how to get more involved. Send Rhiannon your suffrage questions, comments and column ideas via Twitter

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