In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re going to take a look at suffrage pilgrimages that took place in Maryland in the summers of 1914 and 1915.
Back in August 2020, the Historic Maryland Newspapers Project and the Maryland State Archives co-hosted a social media campaign in honor of the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment. Many of the posts created for the campaign came from a newspaper digitized by HMNP in Chronicling America titled the Maryland Suffrage News.
Despite its fundamental political motive–to reshape voting districts in order to benefit the electoral chances of one political party–gerrymandering may be one of the few practices that Republicans and Democrats have in common these days. Although the effects of Republican-led gerrymandering has arguably received more national attention during recent years, both parties have used this practice to gain political advantages. Districts across Maryland, for example, have been redrawn by both major parties during the last several decades. Take Baltimore–a longtime resident in southern Baltimore may have lived in as many as three different electoral districts during the last 20 years.
While gerrymandering has been utilized to both maximize and minimize the electoral impact of different groups of voters, its geographic effect typically follows a certain pattern. The shapes of different districts change every few years as a result of gerrymandering. However, in 1957 in southeast Alabama, the practice of gerrymandering almost led to the complete elimination of one county entirely. The reason? To severely curtail the voting power of African-American residents.
Despite ever-present resistance from white, pro-segregation factions, including violent intimidation tactics used by white nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, black voter registration in the South rose steadily during the 1950s. A corresponding trend was also occurring in Macon County, Alabama–located about 40 miles east of Montgomery and home to the historically-black Tuskegee University. Whereas only 30 African-American residents were registered to vote in 1930, over 1,000–or roughly three percent of the total county population–were registered by 1957.
Of course, this trend also created heightened concern among white southerners who feared that black voters would be able to curtail long-standing segregation laws across the region. In turn, they worked with state legislators like Alabama senator Sam Engelherdt to develop and implement strategies to stop the growth of black voters.
In 1957, Senator Engelherdt took a unique measure to do just that. He introduced Act 140, a state voting measure that, if passed, would eliminate Macon County and incorporate its residents into five neighboring counties with more concentrated white populations. As a result of the proposed amendment, black voters distributed among five different, predominantly white counties would have a much weaker influence on elections and voting measures.
Despite the growing number of registered black voters in Macon County, white voters still outnumbered them approximately two to one in 1957. As a result, Act 140 passed easily in December 1957. Years later, a state amendment was introduced and passed by Representative Thomas Reed–an African-American representative from Tuskegee and future president of the Alabama NAACP–to nullify Act 140 and reestablish Macon County.
Nevertheless, the damage caused by the original amendment had already been done. The Tuskegee Civic Association denounced Act 140, calling it a ploy orchestrated by white segregationists to “maintain an undemocratic system of social relationships, a system which cannot be justified morally or politically.” Although it was neither the first nor the last time that a state used political measures to reshape voting districts, the events in Macon County in 1957 demonstrate how gerrymandering was–and continues to be–used to facilitate social and racial injustices.
On February 3, 1870, the United States ratified the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The third and final amendment of the Reconstruction Amendments–enacted in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War to help rebuild the Union and establish a freer society unbound from slavery–prohibits states and the federal government from withholding a citizen’s right to vote based on that person’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” After Iowa ratified the amendment on February 3–becoming the 28th state to do so and fulfilling the three-fourths threshold for amendment ratification–celebrations sprung out across the country.
At the time, President Ulysses S. Grant claimed that the passage of the Fifthteenth Amendment “completes the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event” in the nation’s history. Many other Republicans believed that the amendment would finally guarantee black Americans equal rights under the law. Future president James A. Garfield even declared that the amendment would ensure black Americans control over their collective well-being. Garfield proclaimed, “It places their fortunes in their own hands.”
Nevertheless, because the federal government failed to strongly enforce the Fifteenth Amendment at the state level after the Reconstruction Era, southern states used alternative methods to restrict the right to vote for black Americans. For many decades after the ratification of the amendment, the state of Mississippi became one of the more deliberate enablers of disenfranchisement methods. By 1875, only five years after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, members of the Democratic Party in the state developed what came to be known as the Mississippi Plan–a series of measures used to suppress the black vote and keep their party in power. Eventually, these measures culminated in the passage of a new state constitution in 1890, which explicitly disenfranchised black voters through the implementation of poll taxes and literacy tests.
Disenfranchisement in Mississippi and other Southern states–enforced using voter registration measures like poll taxes as well as violent intimidation tactics organized by racist vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan–persisted throughout the late 1800s and well into the 20th century. However, by the mid-1950s, events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the emergence of grassroot civil rights groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference helped spur rejuvenated calls for actions to protect the rights and well-being of African-Americans across the country.
The Mississippi State Industrial Union Council, a state affiliate of the CIO, was just one of many grassroots organizations in the South that worked to combat racial discrimination during the Civil Rights Movement. As illustrated in the CIO handout titled “Your November Vote Could Be Your Last,” the council worked diligently during the 1950s to oppose disenfranchisement measures supported by their state government. This advertisement was published and distributed in 1954 to encourage eligible voters to vote against a proposed amendment that, according to the opposition, was specifically designed to prohibit African-Americans from voting.
As written, the “Concurrent Resolution to Amend Section 244 of the [Mississippi] Constitution” would, among other stipulations, require prospective voters to “be able to read and write any section of the Constitution of this state and give a reasonable interpretation thereof to the county registrar.” The state CIO council and other regional civil rights groups believed that the amendment targeted black voters in several different ways. Not only did the amendment place a substantial heavier burden on prospective black voters, as only about five percent were already registered as opposed to over 60 percent of white voters, but required them to pass an arbitrary test that could be extremely difficult for an electorate that received about 70 percent less educational funding compared to whites.
Largely due to these purposeful restrictions, as well as the fact that 95 percent of Mississippi’s eligible voters in 1954 were white, the state amendment passed easily that November. Black voters in Mississippi–along with black voters across the South–would have to wait another 11 years for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to formally abolish literacy tests for voting across the country.
Before women’s rights activists campaigned for suffrage, they called for prohibition. In 1852, four years after the Seneca Falls Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the New York State Women’s Temperance Society. They would not found the American Equal Rights Association until 1866.
Stanton and Anthony fought for statewide prohibition in New York alongside divorce and other Civil Reforms– like the amendment of the Married Woman’s Property Law, which allowed for property ownership, suits in court, shared child custody, and the rights to earnings and inheritance– before they ever explicitly fought for voting rights.
Beginning in 1866, they fought for Universal Suffrage with the American Equal Rights Association, but split from the organization in 1869 over its prioritization of suffrage for black men over women. From there, they founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. That same year, the National Prohibition Party was organized.
The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) formed five years later in Cleveland. Its platform encouraged the prohibition of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs in the U.S., driven partially by a desire to protect wives and children from the physical, emotional, and economic consequences of living with men who were dependent on alcohol. Under the leadership of Frances Willard in 1879, the WCTU became one of the most influential women’s organizations in the country.
At the turn of the century, assumptions about women’s moral superiority increased society’s comfort with their presence in the public sphere. Accordingly, the WCTU expanded its platform to include progressive reforms such as labor legislation, prison reform, and public health. By 1890, the WCTU sponsored more than thirty-five areas of activity, most of which had little or nothing to do with temperance. It was especially effective because of its decentralized structure; local chapters had a great deal of flexibility to choose which issues their members would pursue.
Beginning in 1881, WCTU members argued that women’s suffrage, also known as the “Home Protection Vote,” would cure America’s moral ills. A decade later in 1891, Frances Willard argued that “an organized movement of women will best conserve the highest good of the family and the State.”
Beginning around the 1880s, Black women became active in the WCTU’s “Department for Work among Negros.” Most local branches were segregated, especially in the South. In 1883, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black poet and activist, became head of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia WCTU. Harper often worked closely with the National WCTU, because she saw the organization as the most effective way to expand women’s federal power and earn the vote. However, she also believed that Black reformers should be able to set their own priorities and implemented programs across the country meant to specifically benefit Black communities. Harper split with Frances Willard over issues like federal support for an anti-lynching law and the abolition of the convict lease system. The National Association of Colored Women (founded in 1896) grew out of this split.
Though controversial, the WCTU’s efforts were crucial to the passage of the 19th amendment. Membership decreased sharply following Prohibition, but the WCTU remains active today as the oldest continuous women’s organization in the world.
One of the intriguing aspects of working with the Library of American Broadcasting (LAB) collections is discovering, through routine processing, people who developed interesting careers in early network radio and television but are not well-known among broadcast historians. In particular, information on women in broadcasting can be especially scarce, making it challenging to discover the full scope of their contributions to the industry. The relative lack of archival documentation compared to their male counterparts certainly reflects their historic marginalization in the industry.
Sometimes, we have only a few items from which to assemble personal histories, such as those I find while working with our photo archive. Take, for example, this press photo of a woman seated in front of an early NBC “box camera” microphone. An included caption describes her: “Continually on the trail of celebrities to present on the National Farm and Home Hour, Helen Stevens Fisher generally succeeds in presenting at least one nationally famous personality each week. Her early experience as a newspaper reporter serves her in good stead when it comes to getting her guests to tell some of their most interesting experiences.”
A Google search turns up a little more information, such as mentioning her previous experience as a newspaper reporter. But nothing tells me if she was content to be the “The Little Lady of the House,” as the network called her, or if she was ambitious to expand her role on the program. Digital newspaper archives reveal that Fisher joined the Illinois Woman’s Press Association in 1927, later serving as president from 1945-1949 and that she was the author of five books on home entertainment. (She had the dubious honor of having one of her books unfavorably reviewed in the New York Times by famous radio curmudgeon Fred Allen.) That’s all I could find online in a brief search; perhaps an oral history with Fisher waits to be discovered in a different archive.
Another photo with little more than a cryptic caption describes one Claudine Macdonald, “charming mistress of ceremonies on NBC’s Woman’s Radio Review, [who] presides, via microphone, over hundreds of club meetings throughout the country. Her broadcasts… bring to America’s remotest hamlets distinguished speakers – both men and women – who would otherwise be available to only the largest and most wealthy organizations.”
I was able to find more information about Macdonald in Donna L. Halpern’s Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in American Broadcasting (2014): “The Women’s Radio Review was almost like a magazine, featuring segments on music (sometimes written or performed by women artists), literature, art, travel, news… and no recipes. Macdonald was… opposed to the type of women’s show that talked to women as if they were stupid.” Newspaper archives turned up several articles, including a widely syndicated full-page biography. One of them offered details of her childhood, education, previous work experience, and how she came to create, direct, and host an afternoon “woman’s program” on NBC. However, as with Helen Stevens Fisher, I could find no information about when and under what circumstances she left broadcasting.
Whether they’re comprised of a single photo or dozens of linear feet, materials that document women’s roles in all aspects of broadcasting are especially vital in not only preserving their legacies, but providing detailed accounts of how they navigated the challenges before them.
Post by Jim Baxter Processing, Reference and Outreach Assistant with Special Collections in Mass Media and Culture
The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) records are a major archival labor collection in the University of Maryland’s Special Collections & University Archives. Our archives staff spent some time the last few years reviewing this collection to make it more accessible for both staff and the public. In about 1982 the first records from the union were processed. Over the course of the next three decades, another 40 accessions of records were given to the archives, but they remained unprocessed. The result of our recent review is an additional 490 linear feet of inventoried material dating from 1886 to 2016 that was previously difficult to navigate, search, and serve in the Maryland Room. This material is now minimally processed and boxes are available to request and view in the Maryland Room.
One popular way that people observe Women’s History Month is by reading works written by women. If you’re looking for more ways to celebrate women in literature why not learn more about women in publishing?
One woman who took part in the publishing industry was Kathleen Tankersley Young. Young was an African-American poet and editor at the time of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1929 Young, in collaboration with Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, published Blues: A Magazine of New Rhythms. Blues was a literary magazine that contained contributions from noted modernists such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. Blues can be found in the Serials series of the Authors and Poets collection.
“A small group of people determined to oppose legislation, if provided with money, as were the brewers and distillers, may prevent action being taken, even though the masses of the people demand it.”
In a modern political landscape that empowers lobbyists and special interest groups–particularly those with enough money to spare–you wouldn’t be unreasonable to believe that these words were spoken in the last few years. In fact, they were spoken one hundred years ago.
Carrie Chapman Catt, who composed these words, embodied socially progressive ideas in more ways than one. Born in 1859 in rural Wisconsin, Catt dedicated four decades of her life organizing campaigns and advocating political leaders across the country for the passage of laws to enable women’s suffrage. During a time when even the more influential women rarely occupied positions of high social and political power, Catt served two terms as the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association between 1900 and 1920 and founded the League of Women Voters in 1920.
Like her close friend and NAWSA presidential predecessor Susan B. Anthony, Catt worked tirelessly for several decades to champion the women’s suffrage movement in the pursuit of a national right to vote. Between the 1890s and 1910s, Catt helped develop and implement campaigns across the country to pressure state and federal leaders to support suffrage legislation. At the grassroots level, she also helped to mobilize thousands of volunteers and supporters for the NAWSA and made hundreds of speeches to promote her goals and visions.
After the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 fulfilled the most fundamental goal of the suffrage movement, Catt helped to create the League of Women Voters. Not fully content with a federal amendment giving women across the country the right to vote, Catt expanded her vision for greater gender equality by encouraging women to become more active political leaders. In a pamphlet published by the LWV entitled “Whose Government Is This?,” Catt advocated for women to enroll in classes in citizenship and ethics so that they could learn about how their governments work and operate. In order to attain a greater impact on politics, Catt concluded the pamphlet by writing, “women must be on the inside of parties, and before that can be brought about they must understand better than they do the strength of weakness of each political process.”
When the League of Women Voters published these words, only one woman had been elected to Congress. By the end of the 1920s, 23 women would hold positions in the federal legislature. This pamphlet not only attests to Catt’s vast contributions to the women’s suffrage movement and its eventual realization in 1920, but also illustrates how the fight for equal rights and representation continued to grow beyond the passage of the 19th amendment.
In 1870, the 15th Amendment stated that “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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” This amendment gave many men of color the right to vote, though racist state and local governments almost immediately drafted new laws to disenfranchise them.
Across the American South, racist politicians scrambled to restrict Black votes and maintain white supremacy. As soon as the federal government stopped enforcing the 15th Amendment after Reconstruction, Southern states successfully disenfranchised most Black men with Jim Crow laws and violent intimidation tactics.
However, as the women’s suffrage movement regained popularity, Southern politicians feared not only that the proposed Susan B. Anthony Amendment would enfranchise Black women voters, but that it would re-enfranchise Black male voters as well. As Congress debated the Amendment in 1919, South Carolina Senator Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith argued that “the southern man who votes for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment votes to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment.”
Senator Pat Harrison of Mississippi proposed limiting the franchise to white women, while others argued that the 19th Amendment would be useless because Southern states would inevitably void it, as they had with the 15th Amendment, by mandating poll taxes and literacy tests. Some Southern politicians went as far as calling for the repeal of the 15th Amendment as the women’s suffrage movement grew.
Thus, white women decided that the only way to get the Susan B. Anthony Amendment through congress would be to focus on white women’s enfranchisement. Suffrage leaders acknowledged that Black women in the South would be disenfranchised by the same means as their husbands. While some accepted this fact as an unfortunate truth, others welcomed it. Carrie Chapman Catt famously noted that “If the South really wants White Supremacy, it will urge the enfranchisement of women.”
While most white women in the South fought for suffrage along the same lines as those in the North– gender equality and progressive reform legislation– one group of Southern suffragists used different methods. The Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference (SSWSC), headed by Kate Gordon of Louisiana, pressured state legislatures to enfranchise white women but rejected the notion of a federal amendment. Its motto was “Make the Southern States White.” SSWSC actively opposed Black enfranchisement and advertised state-level suffrage laws as a way to ensure a majority-white electorate in the South.
Gordon was one of the most blatantly racist of all the suffrage leaders, evidenced by this claim:
“The question of white supremacy is one that will only be decided by giving the right of the ballot to the educated, intelligent white women of the South. Their vote will eliminate the question of the negro vote in politics, and it will be a glad, free day for the South when the ballot is placed in the hands of its intelligent, cultured, pure and noble womanhood.”
Despite these views, she held high status in NAWSA–the preeminent American suffrage organization– for several years until she dismissed it as a pawn of the Republican Party and created SSWSC. Though a controversial figure even then, Gordon’s influence demonstrates, at best, a tolerance for racism in the suffrage movement; at worst, it demonstrates an endorsement of white supremacy.
The upcoming UMD Libraries’ exhibition Get Out the Vote: Disenfranchisement and Suffrage in America explores the long and turbulent history of voting rights expansion in the United States, featuring items that illustrate the struggles and successes in the battle for equitable and full suffrage over the past 250 years. Learn more by exploring the exhibition.
Post by Rigby Philips History, specializing in women’s history and the history of sexuality (2021)