Celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage

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Gayle Converse and Pat Miller look at a portrait of Kate Waller Barrett in the Barrett Library on Queen Street. (Photo/Luke Anderson)
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By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller

“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 sex.” – 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution

When the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution – often referred to as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment – was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, it enfranchised nearly 26 million American women in time for the 1920 U.S. Presidential election and ceased nearly 100 years of protest.

A century later, as the nation prepares to mark the centennial of a woman’s right to vote, Alexandria prepares to celebrate its own suffragist heroines.

As early as four decades before the American Civil War, women began to play prominent roles in temperance and religious societies and the abolitionist movement.

Sparsely populated western states began to grant women voting rights in the 19th century, but women’s enfranchisement remained far from approved on the federal level. Women’s suffrage amendments had been proposed to the U.S. Congress by 1869, followed by annual proposals between 1878 and 1920.

Southerners – mainly due to local government opposition – had been hesitant to join the pro-suffrage band wagon, yet in 1909, Virginia women joined counterparts from other parts of the country to fight for voting rights to support reforms in child labor, education and temperance.

Rendering additional fuel to the suffrage movement, as the country entered World War I in 1917, a woman’s standing as a United States citizen took on new meaning when women left their homes to enter the wartime civilian workforce.

Along with other American women, Virginia women gained the right to vote in August 1920, after the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became law – but it wasn’t until Feb. 21, 1952, 32 years later, that the Virginia General Assembly ratified the 19th Amendment.

Alexandria certainly played its part in the women’s movement and eventual passage of the 19th Amendment. First-time women voters turned out in large numbers to cast their ballots on Nov. 2, 1920.

According to an article in the Nov. 3, 1920 Alexandria Gazette, “… The women voted in large numbers and fully three-fourths of the number qualified took part in the election. … There are 4,250 qualified voters in the city, of which number 1,399 are women.”

A small number of leading suffragists lived in Alexandria. Other activists were arrested in Washington D.C. and imprisoned at the Lorton Reformatory, also known as the Occoquan Workhouse, in nearby Lorton, Virginia. In future columns, we’ll explore these local unsung champions – some who devoted their lives to the battle for equality.

The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a new nonprofit that is commemorating the centennial of women’s suffrage and highlighting influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at AlexandriaCelebratesWomen.com.

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