Dancing Backwards and in High Heels

Anne Richards, Governor of Texas, made this remark in her keynote speech at the 1998 National Democratic Covention:

After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.

The words of this empowered southern feminist are applicable in describing the challenge that her southern suffragist sisters faced a half-decade earlier, as they attempted to waltz with their men toward the passage of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment–a waltz that almost never ended. Granted, the national effort to attain suffrage for women required an incredible amount of fancy footwork; but in the south, the majority of it was done backwards and in uncomfortable shoes.

Why was acquiring woman suffrage such an impossible maneuver in the South? Over four millions women, mostly from western states, were already eligible to vote in the presidential election of 1912. Public sentiment was gradually shifting in favor of woman suffrage elsewhere in the country, helped along by the perpetual White House vigil of the Woman’s Party and the threat that non-democratic governments in Europe and Asia were beating the United States to the punch in granting their women the right to vote.

The Nineteenth Amendment finally passed both houses of congress on June 4, 1919, and by August 1920, state legislatures in the East and heartland had joined the western states in sufficient number to ratify the amendment. Ironically, Tennessee, a southern state, became the thirty-fourth state needed to obtain the three-fourths majority for ratification. However, women had been officially voting for three decades before even one of the seven remaining southern legislatures, would endorse and ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. (Virginia, 1952; Alabama, 1953; Florida, 1969; Georgia and Louisiana, 1970; North Carolina, 1971; and, South Carolina, whose legislature had passed it in 1969 but took until 1973 to officially certify.) And yet, it was disfranchised women of the South (albeit those of the white aristocracy who had the means to do so), who devoted their time and influence toward reform in the laws affecting women and children, and to make women equal and independent under the law.

Margorie Spruill Wheeler, in New Women of the New South, 1993, offered a fascinating analysis of the unique plight of the Southern suffragist, which caused Carrie Chapman Catt to write:

No stronger characters did the long struggle produce than those great-souls Southern suffragists. They had need to be great of soul.

I’ve been reading Spruill’s book to gain some background for my next novel. Although I don’t recommend it for beach reading or reading by the pool, it does offer insight into the unique and paradoxical politics of the woman’s movement in the South from the 1890’s-1920’s, as well as a rationale for the stubborn resistance that came from the politicians who dominated the New South.

Spruill lists the following factors that contributed to that resistance:

  • The hostility to the woman suffrage movement based on its close ties with the anti-slavery movement prior to the Civil War.
  • The textile industry, determined to keep its competitive edge with cheap labor from women and children, was threatened by suffragists working to establish progressive reforms, such as child labor and equal pay laws, in their communities and states.
  • Resistance from the liquor industry, due to the strong historical ties between the Woman’s Temperance Movement and the suffrage movement, and the tendency of many southern women to favor prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages.
  • The determination of southern politicians to re-establish the old Southern order of white supremacy, whose success depended upon a rigid states’ rights stance and the strict delineation of gender roles, with the woman playing the role of the “Southern Lady.” In their idealized version of the political order, they viewed the woman as both symbol and guardian of Southern virtue. Her place was in the home; her duty was to transmit the culture to future generations.

May our Southern women remain on the pedestal, forever preserve that distinctive deference which is theirs so long as they remain as they are–our highest ideals of the true, the beautiful, and the good… James Callaway, Editor Macon Georgia. Antisuffrage pamphlet 1919.

I don’t believe the state of Georgia has sunk so low that her good men can not legislate for the women. If this time ever comes, then it will be time for women to claim the ballot. Mildred Rutherford, President of Georgia United Daughters of the Confederacy, 1914 before the Georgia legislature.

1890-1910: Suffrage and “The Negro Problem”

The Southern white women, who are one of the most repressed and enslaved groups of modern civilized women will help willingly to disfranchise Negroes. W.E.B. Du Bois

During this period, the movement, supported by the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, focused upon state-by-state efforts to enfranchise women. The post Reconstruction movement to re-establish white supremacy in the South was  growing, and the suffrage movement in both North and South, saw it as an opportunity to further their cause. As legislatures in southern states convened in the 1890’s to rewrite their constitutions to virtually disfranchise black males, suffragists offered what they thought would be an appealing legal alternative. Why not enfranchise women of property, which would in effect restrict the vote to white women, to offset the black vote? The social order would be restored and at least a portion of the women would gain the right to vote.

In the quote above, W.E.B. Dubois predicted correctly that Southern white women would be willing, as the saying goes, “to throw under the bus” their black sisters, to increase their own chances of being granted the right to vote. That’s not a very appealing trait, and as I think of the role my female protagonist will play in my next novel, I’d really like to pretend that she would not have been that kind of suffragist. I’ll probably struggle some with that issue, and may ultimately develop an antagonist to play the traditional Southern Lady. But in reality, as Spruill documented in her book, most white Southern women of that era, strongly favored states’ rights, were segregationists, and agreed with the notion of a propertied, educated electorate.

Apparently, the male politicians were so intent on preserving the Southern way of life, that they spurned all attempts to pass state suffrage amendments for women and set about instead to pass the Jim Crow laws that effectively disenfranchised black males. Spruill explained that part of the issue was that there was a real fear that woman’s suffrage would extend the vote to black women, and that white men would be reluctant to use the same level of violence and coercion with them as they were accustomed to using with black males. (Wow!)

At the South Carolina Constitutional Convention in 1895, an amendment to grant suffrage to all educated women with $300 worth of real estate, was defeated. This was the typical scenario in most of the southern states. One could rightly conclude that at the end of the 1890’s, white legislators had reached consensus to keep their women at home, on a pedestal, and far away from the arena of politics.

1910-1920

After repeated failure to gain state-by-state passage of woman suffrage, efforts shifted away from suffrage by state amendment toward passage of a federal amendment. Largely through the leadership of Alice Paul and the Congressional Union, which later became the National Woman’s Party, the national suffrage campaign remained centered on getting the Susan B. Anthony Amendment through the House and Senate, and on to the states for ratification.

This caused a split in the ranks of Southern suffragist organizations, as many still held to their states’ rights convictions and did not want to give up on the notion of state enfranchisement. However, Alice Paul was convinced that to pursue both state and federal pathways would dilute the strength of the movement, and insisted that all resources–both human and monetary–should be poured into the federal effort. Southern suffragists still worked tirelessly through their clubs and churches to bring about progressive reform for women and children, but many avoided connection with the National Woman’s Party, which was considered too radical.

In South Carolina, a convention was held in 1917, representing the twenty-five leagues and 3000 members of the South Carolina Suffrage League. Susan Pringle Frost resigned as president of the Charleston organization to form a branch of the Woman’s Party. She was joined by Anita Pollitzer and approximately twenty-two other women. The Woman’s Party only had three branches in South Carolina; however both Frost and Pollitzer were active in the national Woman’s Party, and Pollitzer later served as president of that organization from 1945-1949. (Interview with Mabel Pollitzer, June 16, 1974.G-0047-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)

The state legislature of Tennessee ratified the Nineteenth Amendment on August 24, 1920, in time for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment to become law and in time for women across the nation to vote in the 1920 election.

“Bitter Fruit”for the Southern Suffragist

It only remains for the outward and visible sign of our freedom to be put in the hands of Southern women by the generous men of other states, a situation which hurts our pride and to which we submit with great regret but not apology.  Patti Ruffner Jacobs (from New Women of the New South, p. 172.)

According to Spruill, the ratification period was frustrating and disappointing for Southern suffragists who worked so hard to gain the recognition of the political equality of women at home. In the South Carolina legislature, the vote came up in January of 1920 and was soundly defeated 93-21 in the House and 32 to 33 in the Senate. Only Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee proved exceptions.

Sadly, when the waltz for suffrage finally ended, many Southern belles felt like wallflowers.

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