Editorial: Hail the foremothers
"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."
Well, sure … but that was something brand new when on Aug. 26, 1920—90 years ago today—Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified that the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was in force. The Tennessee General Assembly, on Aug. 18, by just one vote, had ratified the proposed equal suffrage amendment becoming the 36th and final necessary state to put the women’s vote into force.
Pioneers in Gloucester and Mathews quickly registered. Mrs. M. E. Bristow was the first to sign up in Gloucester, according to the Gloucester Gazette. The Mathews Journal listed its voting pioneers in a group: Miss Mary R. Lane, Mrs. Helen F. Forrest, Mrs. Helena W. Elliott, Miss Jessie Hopkins, Miss Georgien Mogford, Mrs. Clara L. Smith and Mrs. Madeline E. Barnes. They had to pay a poll tax to qualify.
The change came hard to many. Although the Gazette endorsed the amendment early, a prominent correspondent of the Journal, Samuel J. Foster (who signed his letters from Susan as "Leumas" or Samuel spelled backwards), disapproved deeply of women’s suffrage and had some quite paternalistic things to say about the new voting bloc:
(From the Mathews Journal, Sept. 9, 1920): "I see that the ‘Powers that be’ have ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, by which the woman of the South has been dragged down from the high and exalted position which she has ever held in the hearts and homes of the people and descended to the groveling position of political equality with the rougher sex.
"Alas, how the mighty have fallen. In my opinion she can accomplish more good for home, for country and for God by staying at home and training her children and by using her influence over the men of her acquaintance, than she can ever accomplish at the ballot box. Well, what can’t be cured must be endured, if it is her choice I have no right to complain, it will not injure me but I would not like to see my wife or sister, if I had one, walking up to the polls in the company of the rabble that may be expected to be met at an election.
"It has always been the case that the woman of our Southland was a refiner and elevator of the rougher sex, and that man was considered rough indeed who would use profane or impure language in her company, but when she descends to his level she can but be expected to be treated as they treat each other. If any one is disposed to differ with me in their opinion they have a right to express themselves. I do not claim infallibility, but in this case I think I am right, but do not propose to argue the case at all. Leumas."
Women had worked for this right and some women across the United States were victims of protests and violence as they campaigned for their civil rights. Their heirs today are women sitting at or near the highest seats of power in local, state and federal governments. Hail to our foremothers.
P.S. The Virginia General Assembly also wore blinders. It did not vote to ratify the amendment until 1952.