In the heat of the summer of 1920, North Carolina and Tennessee squared off, each waiting for the other to blink. Both legislatures were considering a groundbreaking bill that would give women the right to vote. Whichever passed it first would make history as the 36th and final state required to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
But it seemed that neither state wanted the distinction.
Had it not been for Gertrude Weil of Goldsboro, and legions of suffragettes before her, the march toward electoral equality would have likely stalled. Weil’s organization, the North Carolina Equal Suffrage League, launched the North Carolina chapter of the League of Women Voters (LWV), a nonpartisan organization that educates people on the political process. (Today, the group includes men.) Weil served as its first president.
“Women’s rights are not a given,” says Marian Lewin, chairwoman of the Wake County LWV leadership team. The original suffragettes “were willing to suffer, to go to jail,” she adds, for the right to vote.
More than 200 women have run for president, including Victoria Woodhull of Ohio. Even before women could vote, she ran as the first female candidate, in 1872, as a member of the Equal Rights Party. No states would list her name on the ballot.
It’s taken nearly a century for a major party to nominate a woman for president. Regardless of politics, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, has achieved what early suffragettes fought for: equal opportunity.
“They faced opposition in the home as well as from the public,” says Dianna Wynn, communications chair of the Wake County LWV. “Imagine how it would be when you don’t have your family or your community behind you.”
Asheville was the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement in North Carolina. In 1894, Buncombe County music teacher Helen Lewis was elected president of the North Carolina Equal Suffrage Association (NCESA). But the group gained little traction in the state capital, where, three years later, a suffrage bill was introduced in the legislature, only to be condemned to a committee on insane asylums, where it died.
A woman’s right to vote was now the law, and 10 million women became a part of the electorate.
In 1913, the NCESA had a new president, Barbara Henderson of Chapel Hill, and became affiliated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Nonetheless, that same year, and again in 1915, and 1919, North Carolina lawmakers rejected or stonewalled proposals to give women the right to vote.
Nationwide, suffrage opponents disguised their discrimination as concern: Women were emotionally frail, and could not be trusted to rise from their fainting couches to responsibly cast a ballot. Or, women were busy with cooking, cleaning house, washing clothes, shopping, farming, childbearing, and child-rearing — much, much too busy to vote.
“More voting women than voting men will place the Government under petticoat rule,” warned a brochure published in the 1910s by the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage — a group founded by a woman, Josephine Dodge. The pamphlet also contained household hints, advising women that they didn’t need a ballot to clean a sink. “It is unwise to risk the good we already have for the evil which may occur.”
Feminist poet and novelist Alice Duer Miller fired back in a series of sarcastic columns published in the New York Tribune. One of her missives, “Why We Oppose Votes for Men,” was replicated in a poster published in 1915 by the National Woman Suffrage Association. Among the reasons: “Because men are too emotional to vote. Their conduct at baseball games and political conventions shows this, while their innate tendency to appeal to force renders them peculiarly unfit for the task of government.”
After Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919, 36 states needed to ratify it in order for it to be included in the Constitution. Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan were first, in June 1919, and over the following year, 32 more states followed. North Carolina was yet to be one of them.
With the 1920 ratification deadline approaching, the headquarters of the NCESA settled at 116 Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, just a few doors down from its nemesis, the States’ Rights Defense League of N.C., and less than a block from the State Capitol. From there, Gertrude Weil and her fellow suffragettes, encamped at wooden desks with typewriters, worked to convince the male legislature of the worth of the women’s vote.
With 35 of 36 states having ratified the amendment, on August 11, the majority of North Carolina House members sent a telegram to their counterparts in Tennessee, saying they wouldn’t pass the bill, because it interfered with states’ rights. Tennessee, they wrote, should reject ratification as well.
Tennessee also hemmed and hawed, because its lawmakers were “too fearful of the result to force the issue,” read one newspaper article from August 17, subtitled, “Women’s foes may try to postpone decision until North Carolina acts.”
The next day, August 18, Tennessee relented and became the 36th state to ratify the amendment. A woman’s right to vote was now the law. Ten million women legally became a part of the electorate, a turning point that constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar called the “single biggest democratizing event in American history.”
The “petticoat rule” feared by the anti-suffrage movement came true. Backed by the women’s vote, legislation has passed giving women — and men — family leave. Women can now own property and have a credit card without their husband as a cosigner. Women can serve in the military; work in a profession of their choosing; and have equal access to college, professional schools, and athletics.
There are still gender inequities — in pay, for example — and it’s in these areas where the modern LWV does its work. “We’re neutral on politics,” Wynn says. “We’re not neutral on issues.”
As for North Carolina, the state did ratify the 19th Amendment — symbolically, on May 6, 1971.