The year 2020 marks one remarkable anniversary for the nation. It was one hundred years ago that women won the right to vote nationally in the United States with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Women winning the right to vote in Texas was the result of many years of hard work by individuals as well as such organizations as the Texas Equal Suffrage Association.
For many years, there had been quiet calls for women to gain the vote and have rights guaranteed. Abigail Adams wrote a famous letter to her husband John Adams at the Continental Congress in 1776, imploring him to “remember the ladies” as Congress considered independence from Great Britain and weighed the defense of the liberties of men. Women actually received the right to vote first in New Jersey in 1776, but it was an oversight. The state’s new constitution gave the right to vote to any resident who owned property and did not specify men only. Some women met the property-owning requirement but saw their right to vote stripped away in 1806. The Seneca Falls Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, called for all women to be given equal rights with men, but it took decades to overcome political obstacles and social conventions that kept women out of the election process. Women would not be able to vote anywhere in the nation until the Wyoming Territory gave women the vote in 1869.
The Texas Equal Rights Association, formed in 1893, was among the first organizations to push for the vote, inspiring a failed bill in the legislature in 1895. Many early Texas suffragists were leaders in the Prohibition movement and saw the vote as the key to ending the scourge of alcoholism. African-American temperance activist Eliza Peterson of Texarkana openly campaigned for the vote, and Hispanic newspaper editor Jovita Idar rallied support in the state’s Spanish-language newspapers. Support built slowly. Minnie Cunningham of Galveston came to lead the new Texas Equal Suffrage Association in 1916 and tirelessly lobbied legislators.
The state House of Representatives approved suffrage in 1917, but the Senate, backed by Gov. Jim Ferguson, rejected it. When the move to impeach Ferguson arose over corruption charges, suffragists organized support for his removal.
Once Gov. William P. Hobby ascended to the governorship, he recognized through Cunningham’s advocacy how powerful the movement had become and became a great supporter of the cause. Hobby called a special session of the state legislature into session in March 1918, and both houses overwhelmingly approved a law giving women the right to vote but only in primary elections. Women also had to pass literacy tests to be able to vote as well. But Texas was still a one-party state in 1918, which meant that the winner of the Democratic Primary almost automatically won the general election.
This law made Texas and Arkansas the only two states to grant women the vote in this way. However, most states did not give women the right to vote yet. The effort now turned to Congress and a constitutional amendment to give the vote to women.
In the House of Representatives in May 1919, and with the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, congressmen voted 304-89 in favor of the constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote. The Texas delegation split, with 10 in favor and 7 against. Supporters included Rep. Fritz Lanham of Weatherford, former editor and son of a former governor, Rep. Hatton Sumners of Dallas, a former prosecutor, Rep. Lucian Parrish, a Henrietta attorney, Rep. Claude Hudspeth, an El Paso rancher, and Rep. John Jones, an Amarillo lawyer and future federal judge. Opponents included such figures as Rep. Sam Rayburn of Bonham, a future Speaker of the House who, ironically, would later push through civil rights laws that would protect the right of women to vote, and the cantankerous Rep. John Nance Garner, a future vice-president.
On June 1, the Senate approved by 56-25. The two Texas Senators, Charles Culberson and Morris Sheppard, both voted in favor. Sheppard would co-sponsor the Sheppard-Towner Act in 1921, the first federal legislation to aid women’s childbirth and prenatal health needs.
Now passing Congress, states quickly took up the issue amid a storm of protest from anti-suffragists. Thirty-six out of 48 states were required for ratification. The Texas legislature ratified the amendment on June 28, less than a month after it was sent to the states. Texas was the first southern state and the first western state to ratify the amendment.
Tennessee became the last state needed for ratification on August 18, 1920, approved by a margin of one vote. Of the old Confederate states, only Arkansas, Texas, and Tennessee approved the amendment. The Nineteenth Amendment was ratified just in time for women to vote in the 1920 presidential election.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.