Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Remembering Our Foremothers: Researching Women's Suffrage

(Source: North Carolina Museum of History)
March in the United States is Women's History Month. And since it's also an election year, there's no better time to consider how the lives of the women who came before us were shaped by the women's suffrage movement.

When we think of women getting the right to vote and the fight to pass the 19th Amendment, we often think of movies like Iron-Jawed Angels. We remember the "main characters" Alice Paul or Susan B. Anthony. But women's suffrage didn't just exist in political arenas with well-known activists. It was a subject on which men and women without any kind of political office or formal influence formulated their own opinions. They acted, or were prevented from acting on those beliefs, based on where they were living and the larger powers at play.

Understanding how women's suffrage affected local communities is a largely unexplored topic. Full surveys of records related to this movement for many locations throughout the U.S. do not exist. When these records are gathered into one collection, they often are not a high priority for digitization. Much good can be accomplished by the genealogical community to advocate for access to these records. 

But in order to understand the necessity of that advocacy, seeing what I found as I researched women's suffrage in the American South will illustrate some of the challenges that may await you.

Where do I begin in researching women's suffrage?

Before you touch a single voter list or registration record, there is some information you should collect for yourself first. You want to identify the women in your family who were alive in your country of interest at the time women received the right to vote. While this varies by state and municipality in the U.S., beginning with the women of or close to voting age at the 1920 election can be a good place to start. You can then move forward in four-year increments, to trace where these women were living and how old they were at each subsequent election.

I'm keeping track of this information on a spreadsheet, which you can see here:





Information that you'll want to track on your spreadsheet includes:

  • Full name (maiden and married surnames)
  • Whether the woman attended school
  • Whether the woman was literate
  • Repositories and record collections of interest to the cities, counties, or regions you're researching
  • Her age and residence at each election, beginning when women were allowed to vote in her state
I found that the 1910 and 1920 US Population Schedules of the census were the most helpful in determining literacy and schooling, since these questions were addressed directly on the population schedules for those years. For residence information, I copied the district information directly from the 1920 census because these districts will often correspond to election districts. 

Much of the information you need to determine a woman's voting status can be found on records you already possess in your research. Looking more closely at these records to determine what you "already know" about your female ancestors may reveal some details you've missed.

Understanding Voter Requirements

Many states used carefully crafted voter requirements to prevent undesirables from participating in elections. These requirements were most common in southern states, and are usually outlined in state constitutions from the time period in question. Since the majority of the women I was searching for lived in southern Virginia, I decided to start there. Because I was beginning my research with the election of 1920, I wanted to know what the voter registration requirements were like at that time.

The 1902 state constitution of Virginia outlines the voter requirements at work throughout the early 1920s. Their requirements were typical of other states in the South:

  • Women had to be 21 years old, a state resident for at least 2 years, a resident in their county for 1 year, and a resident in their voting precinct for as little as 30 days or as long as 6 months. This meant that if you were a woman who moved to Virginia less than two years before an election year, you would lose the right to vote in the state of Virginia.
  • Men and women were required to pass literacy tests. This test was defined as the voter registrant assigning you a portion of the Virginia state constitution to read and interpret. Since female children in the South often came from farming families, they were expected to drop out of school to work the farm, usually at younger ages than their brothers. The lack of prioritizing female education made it much more unlikely that women in the state of Virginia could pass a literacy test.
  • Voters in Virginia were also required to pay a poll tax. Without the ability to gain lasting, gainful employment outside the home in many rural communities, women often were not in a position to pay poll tax. If a family's income was sufficient for one person to register in a household, undoubtedly it would be a man who would do so.
  • The only exception to these requirements were veterans and their sons, and property owners who had paid at least $1 in property taxes in the past year. Wives rarely inherited their husband's estate. Instead a wife was often given a child's portion, along with her children, as her husband's estate was divided. Depending on the size of her portion, or pressure from her sons to relinquish her land, she may never have enough property to pay a full $1 in property taxes in a year. And since women were not permitted to enter military service, they would never be given leniency on the literacy test or excused from paying poll taxes. Daughters of veterans did not quality, and were also not afforded the same leniency given to their brothers.

These voter requirements were not declared unconstitutional in the state of Virginia until the passage of the 24th Amendment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This means that every woman residing in Virginia and attempting to vote between 1920 and 1965 was bound by these restrictions.


Source: Unknown

When I refer back to my spreadsheet, I see that my ancestor Celia Jane McMeans was living in Virginia at the time the 19th Amendment was ratified. Even though this should have fully enfranchised her, she was prevented from voting because she could not pass the literacy test. This fact about her life had never surfaced before because I'd never put all of these pieces together until now. And it saddens me profoundly to see how she and other women in my family were prevented from exercising their right to vote.

But what saddens me more is how difficult it was for me to uncover that they were denied this right. I had to piece all of this together, without the benefit of access to voter or suffrage records of any kind. And the frustrating thing is, I know these records exist. I know where they're kept. But because I live 2,000 miles away from them, I may never see them or know if they hold any information about my family.

Finding & Accessing Records Related to Suffrage

Few records related to women's suffrage have been made fully available to the public. Many of these records have not been microfilmed, digitized, or indexed. As such, the only way to view many of them is by visiting special collections or research rooms to see and handle the original documents. Often collections of these types are exceedingly fragile, and can only be handled by appointment with the assistance of repository staff.

Some of the most common records to search for are voter lists or voter registration records. These are similar to city directories, in that they're organized roughly by geography and generally list people by first and last name. Voter lists may or may not have addresses on them. However, if a person appears on a voter list, it's because they registered (and fully intended) to vote.

Other records that would be useful to search are from local branches of women's suffrage leagues and organizations. The meetings, protests, and activism of these suffrage leagues were often reported in local and regional newspapers and women's suffrage publications. Searching various newspaper collections, Google Books, and state archives and historical societies can be helpful places to start. Once you identify the organizations that were working towards women's suffrage in a local community, the research question becomes determining whether your ancestor was associated with that organization.

Because my research for women's suffrage focuses primarily on Grayson and Pittsylvania Counties in Virginia, the local women's suffrage league chapters of interest to me are the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia. The Library of Virginia has provided a thorough research guide for the records in their collection, including the membership lists for various counties in Virginia. However, these records have not been digitized, and no one I contacted is aware of any plans to do so.


(Source: The Virginia Historical Society)

When this happens, local historical societies, courthouses, and public libraries and archives may have their own copies of records related to these suffrage leagues, or alternatives to them. But because local repositories often lack a complete catalog of their local history and genealogy-related items, it can be difficult to determine exactly what records they have. Using the Ask a Librarian section or sending an email to ask about specific records that might exist is sometimes the only way to compensate for the lack of an online catalog.

I also enjoy reaching out to other researchers in my counties of interest via Facebook research groups. Thanks to the Grayson County, Virginia Facebook group, I know that some voter records still exist and are kept in the basement of the courthouse. Using websites like Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness also makes it possible to find volunteers who are willing to search those records at little to no cost--or to provide such a service in your local community, if you are willing.

There must be a greater effort given to indexing the records related to women's suffrage while we still have them. Without them, many of us in the younger generations will never know about our personal connections to this period in women's history. This would effectively and tragically silence the voices of one of the most important generations of women who ever lived.

At the height of its activities, the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia alone had about 20,000 members. Many among these are women whose names have never before been associated with the cause of women's suffrage. We all agree that their struggles and sacrifices in relation to suffrage should be remembered. But what are each of us doing in our research, and what are these repositories allowing us to do, to make sure these contributions are never forgotten?

Preserving Memories

Some of your female ancestors may have been voting long before the 19th amendment was ratified. Others may have continued to struggle for that right until it was granted long afterwards. Some may never have gotten to exercise their full rights of citizenship, and some may have refused to do so. Recording the civic behavior of our foremothers is an important part of their story, no matter how far removed they are from that first election. And as with many research projects in genealogy, it may be easiest to start with your closest female relatives and work backwards.

Some interview questions that might be helpful to ask the women in your life:

  • What was the first election your remember voting in? Do you remember who you voted for?
  • Did you vote for...? (Example: John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, any other president that would be a good conversation starter, or be of particular interest in the future.)
  • Do you ever remember going with your mother or father when they voted? Do you remember where the polling place was?
  • Was it hard for you to choose a political party? Why or why not?
  • How have your political views changed since you were younger? 
  • What does it mean to you to have the right to vote as a woman today? What do you want your posterity to remember as they exercise their right to vote?

Preserving the voices of the women in our lives today is part of the ongoing legacy of women's suffrage and the 19th Amendment. How well we preserve that legacy will determine what the future generations of women voters will see when they look to us. They'll want to know what we did with the greatest degree of civic and social influence women have ever had.

And if there's anything we can learn from 20,000 Virginia suffragists whose voices are currently silenced on a shelf, let it be that recording the civic stories of our mothers will allow us to avoid the same fate.