With the founding of the Equal Suffrage League (ESL) of Virginia in 1909, women in the commonwealth began lobbying for the right to vote. Lila Meade Valentine, as the first president of the league, traveled throughout the state to raise public awareness and build support for women’s suffrage. Other prominent participants included authors Ellen Glasgow and Mary Johnston, education activist Mary Munford, and artists Nora Houston and Adèle Clark.
The ESL members worked tirelessly for a decade, but they failed in their efforts to convince state representatives that women should have the vote. Other southern states, including Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina, also fought to keep women away from the polls.
One foil to passage was the issue of race—some members supported suffrage for all women, while others favored suffrage for only white women. Another stumbling block for woman’s suffrage was its close tie to the labor movement and the call for legislation to protect women and children from the exploitation of sweatshops. All of ESL’s efforts were complicated by Virginia’s one-party rule, which made exploiting differences between political parties impossible. After years of defeat at the state level, the ESL switched tactics and focused on winning Congressional passage of the amendment.
Women in Virginia gained the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It passed without Virginia’s support, and in 1952 the General Assembly officially adopted the amendment.
The ESL had been active for several years when this broadside was issued in 1914 by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The suffrage movement was sweeping the west, and by 1896, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho had all adopted amendments to their state constitutions granting women the right to vote. As this map demonstrates, many southern states were opposed to suffrage, and seven of them rejected the amendment (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia). (VHS call number: Broadside 1914:6)
The ESL tried different tactics to convince the public to endorse suffrage. One of the fliers they distributed targeted mothers and pointed out that states that had passed suffrage had equal educational opportunities for girls and protective child labor laws. It concludes “It is just, it is expedient, and has proven a good governmental policy for mothers to have a voice in the laws which control themselves and their children.”
Tennessee became the thirty-sixth and deciding state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment when one of the delegates followed his mother’s advice “to do the right thing” and switched his vote to yes. (VHS call number: Broadside 1916:2)
The Virginia General Assembly refused to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote, but it did honor Lila Meade Valentine as a “leader in Virginia for the enfranchisement of women.” Nancy Astor spoke at the ceremonies for the unveiling of the memorial tablet at the state capital on October 20, 1936. Valentine was the first woman so honored.
Valentine never had the opportunity to vote because Virginia, like several other southern states, was slow to implement the Nineteenth Amendment. Valentine, too ill to go to the polls in 1920, died in July 1921, never having cast a ballot. (VHS accession number: 2013.1.3)