CHARLOTTE – This month marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which added the declaration that no state could deny a citizen the right to vote “on account of sex.”
In honor of the centennial, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library partnered with the Digital Public Library of America to launch “Engage 2020: Look Back, Move Forward,” a digital collection focused on the roles and experiences of Black women in the women’s suffrage movement.
Engage 2020 runs through November and aims to tell the stories of women through virtual program and exhibits. It also seeks to connect the community through conversations about the history of voting in the U.S., past and current civic and social trends and the history of voting rights.
On Aug. 13, the library streamed a live talk on its Facebook page with Marjorie Spruill, a history professor at the University of South Carolina. Spruill is a historian of the American South and of women and gender in the U.S. Two of her areas of expertise are the woman’s suffrage movement of the early 20th century, and the unsuccessful campaign in the 1970s to add an Equal Rights Amendment for women to the constitution.
Librarian Tom Cole said the library asked Spruill to participate in Engage 2020 because the anniversary of the 19th Amendment makes her work on the woman’s suffrage movement especially timely. He said the Equal Rights Amendment is also worth talking about, especially in this political year, because it was significant in shaping the future political divisions.
Spruill’s most recent book, “Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics,” puts women and ideas about women’s roles at the center of modern American history, arguing that the fault lines that emerged around these issues in the 1970s are the same that divide us today.
On Aug. 18, members of Charlotte’s League of Women Voters gave an illustrated history of events in Charlotte, the South and the nation leading up to ratification of the 19th Amendment. The program was hosted by community historian Dr. Tom Hanchett and streamed live on Facebook by the Levine Museum of the New South and its co-sponsor, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.
In addition to Engage 2020, the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room in the library’s uptown branch is another resource for items related to the women’s suffrage movement. It houses photographs, newspaper articles, gavels given to the local chapter of the League of Women Voters by the national organization, buttons and bumper stickers, as well as stamps and bracelets promoting the Equal Rights Amendment. The Carolina Room is currently closed to visitors due to COVID-19, but staff members are available to answer questions and look up items.
Among its collections is a photograph of a suffrage parade float in Charlotte on May 20, 1914.
According to Cole, the movement to win the right to vote for women was decades in the making, but it garnered very little public support in North Carolina until 1913, when a Charlotte chapter of the Equal Suffrage League opened. Cole said only white men and women were admitted to this organization, excluding all persons of color. The group is known today as the League of Women Voters and is inclusive of all races.
A few days prior to the yearly Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence Day parade on May 20, 1914, Cole said Equal Suffrage League chapter members decided they would participate. They hired a driver with a horse-drawn cart, decorated it with a “votes for women” banner and set out along the parade route.
“It got a lot of attention. It was very unusual, but it got a lot of favorable attention,” Cole said. “The women took advantage of this stage in somewhat of a darling way and people were just delighted.”
Later that same year, the Charlotte chapter hosted the statewide convention of the Equal Suffrage League at Charlotte’s Selwyn Hotel, which operated for nearly 60 years at the corner of Trade and Church streets. It was North Carolina’s first women’s suffrage convention.
Cole said the idea of women voting wasn’t a controversial topic in North Carolina at the time because no one was really talking about it at all. He said the women on the parade float were successful in getting people talking, but they weren’t successful in making any real legislative change.
“The women could get attention and create a stir, but the legislators weren’t having it,” Cole said.
In February 1915, both the State House and Senate of North Carolina declined to amend the state constitution to allow votes for women. Cole said even as other states embraced equal suffrage over the next for years, North Carolina did not.
The suffrage movement stalled during World War I, when the women put their political activism on hold to support the war effort. By spring 1920, Cole said 35 states had signed the amendment and one more was needed for it to become law. Still, North Carolina legislators wouldn’t budge.
Tennessee ended up passing it on Aug. 18, 1920, making women’s right to vote universal throughout the nation. The North Carolina General Assembly eventually endorsed it in 1971.
Although the 19th Amendment included women of color, Cole said it did not improve access to the polls for Black women in North Carolina. Particularly in the South, state laws, poll taxes and literacy tests that effectively barred people of color from participating in elections remained in place so that Black women were as excluded as before. In fact, most would wait nearly five decades more to exercise their right to vote.
Want to learn more?
Find Charlotte Mecklenburg Library on Facebook to watch Marjorie Spruill’s talk and the program by Charlotte’s League of Women Voters. Visit www.cmlibrary.org/engage2020 for information about Engage 2020 and a calendar of upcoming programs.