Why N.C. didn't give women
the vote

'90's Flashback

To celebrate our 15th anniversary, each month Carolina Woman reprints one article from the first year we hit the streets of the Triangle. This piece is a great choice because August 26 is still Women's Equality Day, commemorating the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women full voting rights in 1920. And the story of what happened in our state still deserves to be told.

By Elna Green

The eyes of the entire country were turned toward Raleigh, and the stakes were high.

As of Aug. 17, 1920, 35 states had ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, nicknamed the Susan B. Anthony amendment in honor of the pioneer suffragist.

Only one more state was needed to ratify the amendment to grant women the right to vote. But none of the remaining states had strong suffrage movements; none was considered certain to ratify. Observers considered North Carolina questionable at best.

On Aug. 17, the Senate galleries were packed; legislators were about to vote on one of the most controversial issues of the day. The atmosphere was so tense that the Senate did something it had never done before: Public seating areas were officially divided.

Photo courtesy N.C. Division of Archives and History

Woman's suffrage supporters sat on the left side of the gallery, antisuffragists on the right. The trademark colors of the suffragists - yellow and white - could be seen on banners, badges and armbands, while the antisuffragists distributed red roses.

Despite the fact that the North Carolina press in general had long supported the suffrage movement and had given ample space to suffrage articles and editorials, the antisuffragists were certain the legislature would firmly reject the 19th Amendment.

The antisuffragists had good reason to feel confident about the outcome of the vote: They were members of important political families, many from Raleigh, that held great political and economic influence.

Antisuffrage women had husbands in the legislature, uncles in the governor's mansion, and cousins in Congress. Their families owned plantations down east and textile mills in the Piedmont. They believed they had a great deal to fear from women getting the vote.

The antisuffragists often claimed that women's pure and noble nature would be spoiled by entering politics. They often predicted that voting would harm motherhood and womanhood, but they actually had other concerns about women voting.

Mary Hilliard Hinton, leader of the anti-suffrage movement in the state, had argued against enfranchising women for years. The most prominent figure in the movement, she had helped organize the state's two anti-suffrage associations.

The "antis" also included women like Sallie Mayo Cameron, whose husband, Bennehan Cameron, was a planter and railroad magnate, and like Gabrielle Waddell, whose husband, Alfred Waddell, was a former United States congressman and a leader against black enfranchisement.

These antisuffragists were not actually afraid of voting themselves. They believed it was dangerous to let other women vote.

North Carolina's textile industry relied heavily on the cheap labor of women and children for its profits. Antisuffragists feared that women would vote for reforms such as equal pay for women and stricter regulation of child labor.

In addition, these opponents worried that women would vote in a block outside the two major political parties. They feared such a vote would throw current politicians out of office and cause the Democratic Party to lose control of state government.

Most of all, antisuffragists in North Carolina opposed letting black women vote. They warned that any possible positives to come from enfranchising educated white women would be more than offset by masses of poor black women entering the voting booths.

This fear of black voters might seem illogical, considering that North Carolina had already disenfranchised its black population by requiring literacy for voting. Even literate black voters were kept away from the polls by threats and other pressures.

But the antisuffragists feared these measures would not keep black women from voting. They warned that the literacy requirement would not work, for the "colored people are decreasing their percentage of illiteracy very fast, especially in their women and girls."

Antisuffragists were not willing to sit back and allow such a threat to white supremacy go unchallenged. They formed two organizations to work against woman's suffrage: the Southern Rejection League, a women's organization headed by Mary Hilliard Hinton, and the States' Rights Defense League, a men's group led by William Williamson, a textile manufacturer.

Both groups had members from the state's wealthiest families, including Samuel A. Ashe, Raleigh newspaper editor; Elizabeth Cheshire, wife of Episcopal bishop Joseph Blount Cheshire; and Musette Kitchin, wife of William Kitchin, a former governor and congressman.

By the time the North Carolina legislature met that August to debate the 19th Amendment, suffragists had been busy parading, holding rallies and getting newspaper editorial support.

But the antisuffragists had spent the summer hard at work, too. They had published a newspaper called the States' Defense, which described all the reasons they opposed women's suffrage. They also held public rallies and sent petitions to their legislators urging them to vote against the amendment.

The House of Representatives, hoping to avoid the issue as Iong as possible, decided to table the amendment until all other business of the session had been completed. That move put pressure on the Senate, which scheduled a vote for Aug. 17.

After five hours of debate, the Senate paused to vote. Then, in a surprise action, Lindsay C. Warren of Beaufort County moved to table the amendment until the next session of the legislature.

Warren claimed that the members of the current legislature had been elected before it was known they would be voting on this momentous issue. Therefore, citizens had not been given the chance to express their opinion on the issue by voting for a candidate based on his position on woman's suffrage.

The senators agreed with Warren, by a vote of 25 to 23. The amendment was dead in North Carolina, and the antisuffragists were jubilant.

After tabling the amendment, North Carolina legislators went so far as to send a telegram to the Tennessee General Assembly urging its members to turn it down during its vote the next day.

But the celebration of the antisuffragists was short lived. On Aug. 18, Tennessee, the final state needed, voted to ratify.

Women in North Carolina, both black and white, were to get the vote. The action of another Southern state had made it possible.

This article was originally printed in the Spring 1994 issue of Tarheel Junior Historian magazine, published by the N.C. Museum of History.