Austin Celebrates the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Right to Vote
Women leaders on the ratification of the 19th Amendment and how, 100 years later, there’s still work to do
By Laurel Miller
This month will mark 100 years since suffragists achieved their longtime goal of securing American women the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. National and local events to celebrate the anniversary – from exhibits and film screenings to readings – are cancelled due to the pandemic, but for all American women, the significance of August 26th is no less relevant today than it was a century ago.
The struggles faced by suffragists has eerie parallels to current events, from the pandemic to systemic racism.
“Race and women’s rights are particularly apparent when we look at some of the legacies of the suffrage movement. Some of the white leaders ignored the pleas of Black suffragists for equality,” says Dr. Allison K. Lange, associate professor of history at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, and author of Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. “White suffragists never fully backed Black female voting rights, but after the 19th Amendment’s passage, Black suffragists asked them to enforce the law in the South to ensure their right to vote. White suffragists refused.”
While Southern states prevented Black people from voting with discriminatory laws until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Asian Americans won the vote in 1952, Native Americans in 1924, although some states passed laws preventing the latter from voting until 1957), Lange notes it’s still important to “celebrate progress, but we also have to acknowledge the things that haven’t yet happened or are still inequitable.”
Former Texas State Senator and 2014 Texas Democratic Gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis notes that the current pandemic, which has been compared to the flu pandemic that swept across the world from 1918 until 1920, has exposed and exacerbated many of the gender and racial disparities that still exist in our society.
“Women represent two-thirds of minimum wage earners in this country, and one-third of them are mothers struggling to provide for their families. Disproportionately, this group is made up of women of color,” Davis says. “The most important change we can make for women immediately is to equalize their pay through the Paycheck Fairness Act, while lifting minimum wage pay for workers overall.”
While female leaders like Davis have implemented both change and advocacy, Lange notes that despite greater visibility, the numbers for women in politics and leadership roles in business “are dismal.”
“Change takes time,” Davis says. “Today we don’t think twice about women voting, but it was 72 years of struggle to achieve that right. The suffragists showed us how women can create, and succeed, with a social movement.”
For Austin philanthropist and activist Mary Herr Tally, 25 years of working in both the visual and performing arts and a stint in television motivated her to take action on behalf of women’s rights. “My career gave me firsthand experience of the pay disparity and systemic sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace,” Tally says.
In January, with the Centennial in mind, Tally created the site ATXCelebratesWomensSuffrage.com to “remind women of the hard-won battle to vote and the potential power in that right.”
“It’s important to understand that for the first 144 years of our country’s history, women couldn’t vote, inherit property, sign legal documents, attend college, keep their maiden name or file for divorce,” Tally adds. “The Centennial is a perfect time to remind everyone that the upcoming Presidential Election is when we must exercise this power.”
Tally’s goal in creating her site was to offer a compendium of suffragist history, stories and local events (most of which are now cancelled), but the irony of current circumstances doesn’t escape her. “The outbreak of the Pandemic of 1918 halted suffragist rallies across the country at a critical time,” she says, “just as women were gaining significant momentum but they persevered.”
World War I, which ended on Nov. 11, 1918, actually strengthened the suffragist movement. According to Lange, the war opened the door for tens of thousands of women, including Black women, to enter the workforce because men were fighting overseas. Subsequently, President Woodrow Wilson lent his support to the movement, stating, “We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”
The Movement in Texas
Texas was at the forefront of women’s rights, beginning in 1893 when Galveston’s Rebecca Henry Hayes organized the state’s first rally, followed by Eleanor Brackenridge of San Antonio and Annette Finnegan of Houston. In 1918, Austin’s Jane McCallum led a 16-hour demonstration against Governor James Ferguson, Jr., a staunch opponent to women voting.
Texas suffragists and their leader, Minnie Fisher Cunningham, played a role in Ferguson’s removal from office due to embezzlement, by leveraging women’s potential support of impeachment. Cunningham met with Lieutenant Governor William P. Hobby and told him she would secure the suffragists’ vote to oust Ferguson, if he would support the proposed bill for women to vote in the primaries. It worked. After the bill passed, 386,000 Texas women registered to vote and two weeks later, Hobby became the 27th Governor of Texas. In 1920, Texas would become the first Southern state to ratify the 19th Amendment.
In 1927, Jane McCallum became Secretary of State in Texas. A year later, Cunningham became the first woman in the state to run for Senate and later, governor. “These women were brilliant strategists,” says Tally. “They were laser-focused on winning the right to vote and then dedicated their lives to serving Texas and our country.”
After the passage of the 19th Amendment, women voters began addressing social issues like food poverty and education and civil rights. This November, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) will again be on the table. First drafted in 1923 by suffragist Alice Paul, the ERA is a “a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex,” according to equalrightsamendment.org.
Adds Davis, “The ERA is key to ensuring that this includes trans, gay, bi, and non-binary people are guaranteed equal protection, as well.”
Davis launched her own voting advocacy platform in 2016, called Deeds Not Words (the phrase was a popular slogan amongst suffragists). The non-profit “seeks to empower and give (young) women the tools needed to turn their passion into effective action, by teaching civic engagement skills, organizing, policy-making and increasing voter participation.”
While 2020 has been the most fraught year in recent history, we should celebrate the achievements suffragists made possible. “The 19th Amendment was the single most transformational event for women in our country,” says Tally. “Once you speak up, it becomes impossible not to.”