This Month in History
At 8 a.m. on August 26, 1920, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed off on the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. With a few strokes of a pen, a decades-long, arduous, conflict-ridden campaign to ensure that women could not be denied the right to vote “on account of sex” was over.
Prior to the passage of the amendment, millions of women and men joined pro-suffrage organizations. Over the decades, suffragists used a range of tactics to put pressure on state and federal legislators to give women the vote. Finally, Congress passed the amendment in the House in January 1918. The Senate followed suit in the summer of 1919. Then, the Nineteenth Amendment went to the states for ratification.
In 1920, thirty-six of the forty-eight states needed to ratify an amendment for it to become law. By the summer of that year, thirty-five states had voted in favor of the Nineteenth Amendment. At that time, it was not clear which state—or if any state—would step up and cast another vote in the affirmative. In 1920 alone, suffragists lost ratification votes in South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Mississippi, and Delaware. Would one of the remaining eight states—many of which were in the South, a region that historically did not support women’s suffrage—vote yes to the amendment? No one was sure.
As the movement came to a head, both sides were optimistic and fearful of the results of the next state’s battle. Despite vociferous attempts to thwart the passage of the amendment, on August 18, 1920, Tennessee voted in favor of the Nineteenth Amendment. North Carolina was also in the running to be the thirty-sixth state to ratify. Although the governor called a special session to vote on women’s suffrage, North Carolina’s General Assembly ducked the issue, voting to defer their decision on August 17, 1920. The next day, Tennessee voted to ratify the amendment. North Carolina’s legislators then voted against the amendment, even though they knew it was now effectively the law of the land.
As the campaign for women’s suffrage became more active in the 1910s, both Black and white North Carolinians formed local organizations to advocate for women’s voting rights. In New Hanover County, a whites-only equal suffrage league was founded in December, 1916. There were 30 members of the original organization. Mrs. Bessie Lodor Wiggins was president of the new organization. During World War I, the local group stopped their campaign and worked to support the war. A pro-suffrage group then re-formed in 1920, to support the Nineteenth Amendment ratification campaign. Mrs. Wiggins was the chair of this Ratification Committee of New Hanover County. The committee disbanded after the amendment passed, and many of the same women went on to found the New Hanover County League of Women Voters, which first formally organized on November 30, 1921.
Racism played a major role in the fight over suffrage in North Carolina, and in the rest of the country. Racist ideas were deployed by whites on both sides of the debate. On August 15, 1920, the Raleigh News and Observer’s front page included a short piece that declared that the numerical dominance of white women in the state would mean that “Women Suffrage in North Carolina will increase white supremacy.” The paper considered that to be a positive outcome. Still, racism was most often and most vociferously employed by the anti-suffrage side.
Anti-women’s suffrage forces claimed to be afraid that the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment would lead Black women to seek the vote in large numbers. They also worried this could lead to a resurgence in the number of Black men seeking to register and vote. This was not likely. By 1920, Black men had been disenfranchised in North Carolina for nearly two decades. The white supremacist Democratic party had successfully and forcefully suppressed New Hanover County’s Black vote in 1898, and then Black men lost the vote around the state in 1900. At that time, North Carolina passed a suffrage amendment that used a number of subterfuges to sidestep the Fifteenth Amendment. Still, fears about Black voters were deployed by anti-suffragists across the state.
These fears were shown to be unfounded, when women began to register for the vote in North Carolina in September and October of 1920. After a slow start to the process, three thousand women in the county registered, making up forty percent of the people registered in the county. When the registration period closed, The Wilmington Morning Star declared “Women favoring suffrage, women opposing suffrage, women ranging in years from twenty-one to ninety-one—all flocked to the polling places to take the steps necessary to fit them for voting in the coming election.” But this “all” did not include Black women. While the county’s white women exercised their rights, only ten African American women successfully registered in New Hanover County. According to Black nurse Anna Clemmons, that was ten more than in Brunswick County, where registrars used the literacy clause to deny all African Americans access to the franchise. Nurse Clemmons, along with her brothers, were all kept from registering because the local official declared she could not read and write to “suit” him. In a letter to the National Women’s Party, Clemmons wryly noted, “All persons of colored origin in this whole county have been unable to suit the registrar.”
Although the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was an important step towards making the United States a country where all adults had access to the vote, it wasn’t until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that large numbers of Black men and women were able to exercise their Constitutional right to vote in the South.