Honoring Savannah’s 20th-Century Suffragists
At noon on August 21, 1920, three days after the ratification of the 19th amendment, 40 factories and boats in Savannah sounded their whistles in noisy celebration.
Savannah Evening Press reported that City Hall flew international code letters that signaled the message: “We are victorious.” At last, women of the United States had won the right to vote.
Six days later, a group of women met at the corner of York and Bull streets to march to the old courthouse on Wright Square. These women, according to Luciana Spracher, director of municipal archives for the City of Savannah, were led by Mrs. Paschal Strong, vice chairman of the League of Women Voters.
Joining her were local suffragists Sarah Berrien Casey Morgan, who co-founded the Savannah chapter of the Equal Suffrage Party in 1914; Lucy Barrow McIntire, president of the Savannah Suffrage Association; and Stella Akin, the first woman admitted to the State Bar of Georgia and one of the founding organizers of the Equal Suffrage Party.
When they arrived at the courthouse, the tax collector told them the books were closed. Unfazed, Strong proceeded to lecture the tax collector on the law, the brand new law, until he reluctantly handed over the register.
By the end of the day, approximately 50 women, including four Black women, were qualified as voters in the city of Savannah. A new era had begun.
“I’m sure there are many women who take having the right to vote for granted and can’t imagine that women once had to fight so hard for it,” Spracher says, “and that many others — men and women alike — were fighting against them.”
The fight was a long one: 72 years, to be exact, spanning back to the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention.
For more than seven decades, national heroes like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone (all Northerners) tirelessly dedicated their lives to the cause.
Around the country, suffragists staged marches and protests, penned newspaper columns, distributed leaflets and picketed voting polls. Many of them never lived to cast a single vote.
Today’s voters forget just how long it took to win the vote or how radical the idea was, especially in our area, notes Anastasia Sims, historian and professor emeritus at Georgia Southern University.
“The South was the region of the U.S. where opposition to women’s suffrage was the strongest,” she says. “Opposition can be summed up by the three ‘R’s’: religion, race and resistance to change and reform.”
In the South and elsewhere, many believed the women’s vote was a threat to both political and family institutions.
“Housewives! You do not need a ballot to clean out your sink spout. A handful of potash and some boiling water is quicker and cheaper,” advises one pamphlet widely distributed by the National Association Opposed to Women Suffrage.
Last spring, in anticipation of the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the City of Savannah’s Municipal Archives hosted a lecture titled “Women’s Suffrage Comes to Georgia.” Leading the program was Roger Smith, director of The Learning Center at Senior Citizens, Inc.
“If you came here looking to be proud of the history of your state at the vanguard of giving women the right to vote,” Smith began his lecture, to the sheepish laughter of the crowd, “I’m afraid you’re going to be bitterly disappointed.”
Smith is quick to point out that Georgia rushed to be the first state to reject the 19th amendment. Even after the amendment became law of the land, the Georgia legislature did not ratify it until 1970, a symbolic gesture by and large. (For the record, Georgia was not the last to ratify the 19th amendment: North Carolina’s ratification came in 1971 and Mississippi’s in 1984!)
“In Georgia and all over the South,” says Smith in a recent interview, “anti-suffrage voices greatly outnumbered those in favor of universal suffrage. But there are heroes in this story who are even more admirable for being in the minority.”
Change arrives not in the sounds of the chorus, but in the single voice of a brave individual who dares to sing. For Smith and others the story of suffrage in the South is the story of the women who brought the fight here, to our region.
One such woman was Helen Augusta Howard, from Columbus, Georgia, who founded the Georgia Woman Suffrage Association in 1890, at the age of 25.
Original members of this organization numbered only six: Howard, her mother, and her four sisters. Still, some in her family spoke out against this “unnatural woman” who never married, practiced vegetarianism, and, worse, was known to wear trousers.
Remarkably, Howard helped convince the National American Woman Suffrage Association to move its annual convention to Atlanta in 1895 in order to bring their radical message to the Deep South. Speaking to the convention she argued: “The Georgia [news]papers and the far Southern papers still insist that women do not want the ballot. Until you hold a convention in the South and prove to them that this is not so, they will keep on saying this.”
Howard’s sister, Miriam Howard Dubose, in her address titled “Georgia Curiosities” explained further that among the many curiosities in our region were “men who love their women too deeply to accord them justice, and women who are taken in with such affection.”
Like other early Georgian suffragists, Mary Latimer McLendon, considered the mother of women’s suffrage in Georgia, similarly forsook “affairs of the kitchen” in pursuit of the ballot box.
McLendon served as the president of the Howard-founded GWSA for nearly two decades, writing newspaper columns, organizing parades, distributing pamphlets and campaigning to the Georgia legislature in an attempt to win suffrage at the state level.
Although Latimer McLendon joyously lived to see the 19th amendment ratified, women of Georgia were barred from the 1920 general election due to a technicality the state legislature refused to waive: women failed to register prior to the spring deadline.
“The tragic part of the story,” Smith notes, “is that Latimer McLendon died in 1921 without ever exercising the franchise in her own right.” One hundred years later, Smith hopes Georgians and Americans alike can see the parallels between matters of access as highlighted by last century’s women’s suffrage and today’s voting rights.
This, too, is the hope of Rebecca Rolfes, sitting president of the League of Women Voters of Coastal Georgia. “It’s remarkable to me how little our work has changed in a hundred years,” Rolfes says.
“The women’s suffrage movement worked to first win and then maintain the right to vote for half the population. As the guardian of that legacy, the League of Women Voters was and is a grassroots movement that registers and educates voters, that works to protect the right to vote and the integrity of elections. The League’s tagline is, ‘Empowering Voters. Defending Democracy.’ That’s what it was about during the suffrage movement, and that’s what it’s still about.”
Rolfes points to Mamie George Williams as one example of a heroic civic servant who fought for the vote at home. A native Savannahian who graduated from Beach Institute (now The Beach Institute African- American Cultural Center) and Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), Williams is credited with waging a massive voter registration campaign in 160 counties, which resulted in 40,000 qualified Black women voters in Georgia.
In 1924, she made history when she became the first Black woman in the nation to serve on the National Republican Committee.
Williams once said, “To many politics is a sordid game. But to me it means the getting of everything worthwhile out of it for the race.”
“The thing suffragists all had in common was a relentless focus on the goal; the ability to keep their eyes on the prize regardless of the circumstances. Maintaining that focus becomes harder and harder the farther you go from the change itself,” Rolfes says.
One hundred years ago, when the bells and whistles of Savannah sounded out in celebration, not everyone was jubilant.
Now, the image of American women being persuaded to give up their vote for a faucet cleaner of potash and boiling water seems downright absurd.
But a few determined activists, some still alive to witness the triumph, convinced all Savannahians to set aside their chores for a while and head to the voting booth. That’s a lesson we can all remember today.