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We’ve Come a Long Way in 100 Years

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    Women’s clubs around the nation advocated participation in civic affairs. Elgin’s New Century Club was organized in 1897 and pushed for women being allowed to vote. Photo courtesy of Elgin Historical Association

August 16, 1920 is an important date in American history. After years of struggle, voting became a reality for women with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: 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.

Prior to the Declaration of Independence, the states of New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey allowed women to vote in minor elections. When the Constitution was finally adopted in 1788, the only voting provision was that white, property-owning men could vote, so the women in the four states that previously had conditional voting rights lost them. Throughout the next 110 years, attempts were made to bring attention to women and voting power, but to no avail. After the Civil War, additional criteria for voting was added concerning literacy and a poll tax. The idea of women voting was a very polarizing subject, both among men and women.

In 1912, The New York Times—which was against women’s suffrage—editorialized with this stern warning predicting with suffrage women would make impossible demands, such as: serving as soldiers and sailors, police patrolmen or firemen... and would serve on juries and elect themselves to executive offices and judgeships.

It blamed a lack of masculinity for the failure of men to fight back, warning women would get the vote “if the men are not firm and wise enough and, it may as well be said, masculine enough to prevent them.”

By the mid-1880s, women across the nation had begun organizing study clubs with projects to improve their communities, and women’s suffrage became an item to support. This occurred from the streets of Washington, D.C. down to the homes in Elgin, Texas. The women of Elgin had organized a club named the New Century Club in 1897, and by 1918 the New Century Club had been credited with obtaining and maintaining a city park for downtown Elgin and the club had started the first library in Elgin. These women began to push for political and social participation in their community and they felt that the women votes were needed to accomplish prohibition of liquor and women’s suffrage.

By 1910, five states began granting voting rights to women in some local or state elections, but women voting in federal elections was still prohibited. The congressmen from these five states soon came out for women’s rights in Washington, and in 1915 a bill was introduced to adopt such a Constitutional amendment. For four years, the bill would be introduced and fail by a very small margin, only to be introduced again.

The entry of the U.S. into World War I in April 1917 had a significant impact on the suffrage movement. To replace men who had gone into the military, women moved into workplaces that did not traditionally hire women, such as steel mills and oil refineries. Custom and tradition held that government was the prerogative of men and hence outside of the women’s sphere; that women had no need for the ballot because men would protect them. Participation in politics would, it was thought, make women coarse and crude and would cause them to neglect their homes and their children.

The governor of Texas, James E. Ferguson, was a staunch opponent to women voting, but Ferguson was impeached and removed from office in 1917. The Lieutenant Governor, William P. Hobby, succeeded Ferguson, and Hobby was a champion of women’s rights. In early 1919, he proposed that the Texas Constitution be amended to allow full suffrage to women. It passed the Texas Legislature without a single dissenting vote. However, it had to be approved by the voters of Texas before this could become effective. An election was called for May 24, and the amendment failed by 25,000 votes. Elgin and Bastrop County were all against this. The May 29, 1919 edition of The Elgin Courier gives the tally as follows:

  For Against
East Elgin 60 95
West Elgin 95 84
Williamson County 1,679 2,279
Bastrop County (total) 766 1,183

On June 4, 1919, ten days after the amendment to the Texas Constitution failed, the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution finally passed Congress. However, it would not become effective until two-thirds of the 48 state legislatures approved it. Governor Hobby immediately called a special session of the Texas legislature, and Texas was the ninth state to approve the amendment even though the matter had failed in a general election one month earlier. On August 16, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, and women in the United States could no longer be denied voting rights because of their sex.

The predictions of The New York Times could be considered prophetic in that Texas has had two women governors, Elgin has had two women mayors and three women now serve on the Elgin City Council. We’ve come a long way!