Founding of the League
The Equal Suffrage League of Virginia was founded in November 1909, when a small group of women, the artist Adèle Clark among them, gathered at the Richmond home of Anne Clay Crenshaw to discuss the establishment of a statewide suffrage organization. Women wanted the vote, Clark later recalled, so they could work more effectively for the passage of health, education, and child labor laws. The league elected Lila Meade Valentine as its president and included writers Ellen Glasgow and Mary Johnston, artist Nora Houston, and physician Dr. Kate Waller Barrett among its members.
Through canvassing, distributing leaflets, and public speaking, the Equal Suffrage League intended to educate Virginia's citizens and legislators and win their support for woman suffrage. Nearly 120 members joined during the league's first year. By 1911, the state headquarters for the Equal Suffrage League had been established in Richmond; the following year, the league opened an office at 802 East Broad Street, conveniently located near Capitol Square.
That same year, Clark worked crowds wherever she found them. At the state fair she helped to organize the showing of a suffrage film and distributed buttons and yellow "Votes for Women" flags. She also participated in street meetings in Capitol Square and on street corners, coaxing crowds to come hear the suffragists speak by standing up her easel and grabbing her paintbrushes. "It reached the point," she remembered, "where I couldn't see a fireplug without beginning 'Ladies and gentlemen.'" Beginning in 1914, the group published its own monthly newspaper, the Virginia Suffrage News, and author Mary Johnston visited women's colleges to rally faculty and students to the cause. A group of Richmond businessmen formed the Men's Equal Suffrage League of Virginia; suffragists began distributing literature and visiting schools, fairs, and union meetings; and soon local suffrage leagues sprang up across the state.
Battle for Suffrage in Virginia
Questions about race complicated the campaign for suffrage in Virginia. The Virginia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage vigorously attacked the Equal Suffrage League's campaign. Organized in 1912 when woman suffrage first came before the General Assembly, these antisuffragists promoted the idea that giving women the right to vote would encourage black women to vote and therefore endanger whites' control at the polls, which would lead to the demise of white supremacy. The Equal Suffrage League initially responded by ignoring the claim, believing the assertion to be bogus. According to historian Suzanne Lebsock, "In its original form this was a strictly defensive argument that rendered no judgment on the justice of white supremacy itself."
Despite the fact that the Equal Suffrage League was one of the most vital suffrage organizations in the South, woman suffrage resolutions were defeated in the Virginia legislature three times between 1912 and 1916. When Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in June 1919, the Equal Suffrage League fought hard for ratification. Virginia politicians did not relent, however, and Virginia was one of the nine southern states that refused to grant the vote to women. The suffrage amendment failed by large majorities in both houses. (On February 6, 1920, after more than twelve hours of debate, the Senate of Virginia voted to reject the Nineteenth Amendment, 24 to 10; six days later, the House voted 62 to 22 against ratification.) The measure passed in thirty-six other states, however. Virginia women at last won the right to vote in August 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment became law, and they exercised that right soon after, in the November elections. The General Assembly stubbornly withheld its ratification until 1952.
The League Disbands
The campaign for the vote may have faltered in Virginia, but the suffrage movement did not. While the Equal Suffrage League ultimately failed to win the vote, it secured bills concerning juvenile delinquency and child neglect, and helped defeat legislation to lower standards for milk and increase the working hours of women and children in factories. The work of suffrage ultimately extended the role of women to encompass the world of politics and progressive reform, and opened a new chapter in Virginia history.
November 27, 1909 - A group of women, including Ellen Glasgow, Mary Johnston, Kate Langley Bosher, Adèle Clark, Nora Houston, Kate Waller Barrett, and Lila Meade Valentine, found the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia.
February 1910 - The Equal Suffrage League of Virginia joins the National American Woman Suffrage Organization.
1912 - Lila Meade Valentine persuades a group of Richmond businessmen to form the Men's Equal Suffrage League of Virginia.
1912 - Virginia suffragists bring a suffrage bill to the floor of the General Assembly three times between 1912 and 1916 but it is not passed.
1914 - The Equal Suffrage League of Virginia begins publishing a monthly newspaper called the Virginia Suffrage News.
1914 - The Equal Suffrage League of Virginia has forty-five local chapters.
1916 - The Equal Suffrage League of Virginia has 115 local chapters.
1919 - Membership in the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia reaches 32,000, making it most likely the largest state association in the South.
1919 - Despite pressure from the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, the Virginia General Assembly rejects the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
September 1920 - The Equal Suffrage League of Virginia disbands.
- Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman's Party. Library of Congress American Memory Web site
- Miller NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks, 1897–1911
- Library of Virginia Working Out Her Destiny Online Exhibition
- Library of Virginia Images and Documents from Working Out Her Destiny
- VCU Libraries: Anne Clay Crenshaw and the Women's Suffrage Movement in Virginia
- National Archives and Records Administration: Teaching with Documents, Woman Suffrage and the Nineteenth Amendment
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
McDaid, J. D. Equal Suffrage League of Virginia (1909–1920). (2011, April 7). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Equal_Suffrage_League_of_Virginia_1909-1920.
- MLA Citation:
McDaid, Jennifer Davis. "Equal Suffrage League of Virginia (1909–1920)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 7 Apr. 2011. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: January 15, 2009 | Last modified: April 7, 2011
Contributed by Jennifer Davis McDaid, historical archivist, Norfolk Southern Corporation.