The struggle for suffrage

The struggle for suffrage
Monochrome painting by Edwin Tunis (c. 1934) of Margaret Brent speaking to the Maryland Assembly in colonial St. Mary’s City. (Courtesy Photo)

By Gayle Converse

 “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 

In February 1920, Virginia voted against ratifying the 19th Amendment. But by August of that year, 36 states had approved the proposal. The ratification meant nearly 26 million American women – including those in Virginia – could finally cast their votes. Virginia delayed its ratification of the 19th Amendment another 32 years in 1952. 

Individual women on the North American continent worked to gain the right to vote since the 1600s. In a time when men outnumbered women by almost six-to-one in most English colonies in the New World, an Alexandria landowner might have been the first woman in the history of North America to demand the right to vote. 

In January 1648, Margaret Brent petitioned the all-male Maryland Assembly for the right to become enfranchised. She was denied her claim but admonished the Assemblymen, “I’ve come to seek a voice in this assembly. And yet because I am a woman, forsooth I must stand idly by and not even have a voice in the framing of your laws.” 

It would take more than 200 years for women to mobilize as they fought to gain equality at the ballot box – but “equality” was limited: while remaining strong advocates for voting rights, Black women were not welcomed by most Virginia suffrage organizations. 

Virginia had become home to a variety of suffrage groups, including the Virginia Suffrage Society, formed in 1893 and later titled the Virginia Woman Suffrage Association. A new organization appeared in 1909, when Alexandria’s Dr. Kate Waller Barrett and other activists created the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia in 1912. In November 1920, a few months after American women had won the right to vote, the ESL disbanded and its members created the League of Women Voters of Virginia. 

Pamela Berg, co-president of the Arlington and Alexandria City LWV Chapter commented on this history. 

“Almost 80 years ago, seventeen women formed the League of Women Voters of Arlington. At that time, the League included the City of Alexandria. The two groups later formed two separate Leagues but joined forces again in 2021. They now have a combined membership of 246, [which] also includes men,” Berg said. 

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 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.” 

Today, Alexandria boasts 112,109 active and inactive total registered voters. General Registrar and Director of Elections Angie Maniglia Turner reports that 60,477 of the city’s registered voters, as of Oct. 23, 2023, are female. 

According to the “Commonwealth of Virginia State Board of Elections Voter Turnout Report by Age and Gender (2017-2025),” women cast their votes at a higher percentage than men in last November’s General Election in the city. To serve the 2023 General Election, Alexandria will require 30 precinct chiefs, and 14 of those chiefs will be women. 

Turner also said women – and one woman in particular – have been a critical part of the city’s Office of Voter Registration and Elections. 

“Our former registrar, Anna Leider – who managed 41 elections, including four presidential elections – was a great mentor and was instrumental in putting the Office on a great path forward to serve the voters of Alexandria,” Turner said. 

The writer is a founder of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit commemorating the centennial of women’s suffrage and highlighting influential women throughout the city’s history.