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Race and Suffrage

Suffragists and anti-suffragists alike used white supremacy ideology to advance their causes. While opponents argued that extending voting rights to women would allow more Black people to vote and thus upset white domination of political and social institutions, advocates for women’s suffrage countered that there were more white women than Black in North Carolina.

Many southern suffragists advocated for state instead of federal action on women’s suffrage. Local control of the polls allowed southerners to restrict the number of Black people who were able to vote. Although Black men had been enfranchised by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, many southern governments had controlled their access to voting by implementing poll taxes and literacy tests.

Southern suffrage groups in North Carolina were affiliated with larger organizations. The largest of these was the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The nationwide group had struggled for decades with the issue of white supremacy and failed to include or support Black women for fear of alienating southern members. This issue made it unlikely that white women would join with Black women in the suffrage fight.

 

Political cartoon depicting a black woman being distanced from a white suffragist.

“Southern States Woman’s Suffrage,” The News and Observer (Raleigh), November 13, 1913

News and Observer (Raleigh)
November 13, 1913

"Southern States Woman’s Suffrage," News and Observer (Raleigh), November 13, 1913.

In New Orleans, Kate Gordon of Louisiana and Laura Clay of Kentucky created the Southern States Woman’s Suffrage Association (SSWSA). The organization’s purpose was to “stand for trying to gain votes for women through amendments to State constitutions rather than a Federal measure….” The SSWSA elected Laura Reilley as the state vice-president for North Carolina.

“Southern Women Oppose Amendment,” The New York Age, March 29, 1919

New York Age
March 29, 1919

"Southern Women Oppose Amendment," New York Age, March 29, 1919.

Southern women attended the NAWSA Jubilee in late March but pushed the national organization to support state’s rights instead of the federal Susan B. Anthony Amendment. This article’s author declares that southern women want "to keep the colored women in the South from having the ballot."

What the Negro Woman Asks p 1

Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

What the Negro Woman Asks p 2

Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Charlotte Hawkins Brown. "What the Negro Woman Asks of the White Woman of North Carolina," May 1920. Charlotte Hawkins Brown Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Just a few months before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, educator, suffragist, and president of the North Carolina Federation of Colored Women's Clubs Charlotte Hawkins Brown addressed the exclusively white membership of the North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs, the first Black woman to do so. In her speech Brown does not address women's suffrage directly but laments the "lack of mutual understanding and the failure to have any basis of cooperation" between white and Black women. 

The Stanly News Herald (Albemarle, NC), Tuesday August 17, 1920

Stanly News Herald (Albemarle, NC)
Tuesday, August 17, 1920

“For Increased White Supremacy," The News and Observer (Raleigh) Sunday, August 15, 1920

News and Observer (Raleigh)
Sunday, August 15, 1920

Editorial.  Stanly News Herald (Albemarle, NC), August 17, 1920.

"For Increased White Supremacy." News and Observer (Raleigh)
 August 15, 1920.

Anti-suffrage adovcates argued that the federal amendment would allow Black women to vote and thus increase the number of Black voters, thus upsetting the racial balance of power. Pro-women's suffrage advocates countered that argument with population statistics. The Stanley Herald noted that white women outnumbered Black women and that women's suffrage would therefore increase the white vote. Furnifold Simmons, a US senator from NC and strong advocate of white supremacy, is quoted in the News and Observer pointing out that the federal amendment is not to be feared, stating that the same educational tests which "for twenty years effectually eliminated negro men from politics in North Carolina" would also be applied to Black women.