A century ago today saw the last Arkansas general election in which only men were allowed to vote.
That sounds like ancient history. But the goal of political (as well as professional and financial) equality for women remains problematic in 2018 — two years after Hillary Clinton fell just short of the U.S. presidency as the first major-party female candidate.
As midterm votes are cast Tuesday, the outgoing U.S. Congress remains predominantly male, as does the Arkansas General Assembly. Female representation nationally and in the state may increase in this week's voting, but will still be well below 50 percent. And the Equal Rights Amendment, whose first version was introduced in Congress in 1923, remains a dormant proposition.
Such shortfalls add a bittersweet tinge to three years of activities marking the 1920 enactment of the U.S. Constitution's 19th Amendment, which granted women full voting rights.
Commemorations in Arkansas, including an online “virtual exhibition” (ualrexhibits.org/suffrage), are being led by the Arkansas Women‘s Suffrage Centennial Project set up by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. They aim to celebrate "the long battle women and men fought to have women's suffrage.”
The year 1918 marked a high point in women's rights as Arkansas became the first “nonsuffrage” state to let women vote in party primaries.
But as it happened, the women of Arkansas in 1918 endured one last setback in their efforts to gain full voting rights — after a half-century, up-and-down campaign that is the prime focus of the centennial program.
A constitutional convention that met during 1918 to craft a document to replace the state's outmoded 1874 charter made full voting rights for women a basic tenet. The proposed Constitution was widely expected to pass.
But an influenza pandemic gripped America in fall and winter 1918, and weather on the day of the special election, Dec. 14, was terrible. Low turnout at the polls (by enfranchised men) is thought to have helped defeat the effort to grant women total suffrage.
So Arkansas women, who'd won partial voting rights in 1917 (only in primary elections), had to wait until enactment of the federal 19th Amendment to vote in the 1920 general election.
Nineteenth-century activity in that sometimes glacial progress is charted in a timeline on the centennial project's website:
■ A women's suffrage provision was introduced at the 1868 convention drawing up a new Arkansas Constitution. The suffrage proposal failed to pass.
■ The Women's Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1873, soon began to advocate for women's voting rights as well as the ban on alcohol sales. An Arkansas chapter was established.
■ In the 1880s, women's suffrage organizations emerged in Arkansas, one headed by Little Rock lawyer Clara McDiarmid, also a Women's Christian Temperance Union leader. Another early leader, from Eureka Springs, was Lizzie Dorman Flyer.
■ That same decade, two women's periodicals appeared: the Arkansas Ladies Journal, founded by Mary W. Loughborough, and the Women's Chronicle, published by Kate Campbell Cunningham and Mary Burt Brooks. Suffrage was one of their prime topics.
■ Most Arkansas suffragists allied themselves with the National American Women's Suffrage Association led by the renowned Susan B. Anthony. She spoke to suffrage advocates in 1889 in Little Rock, Fort Smith and Helena.
■ In 1890, Arkansas delegates attended the convention of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. “Arkansas suffragettes had never been rabble-rousers,” according to the centennial website. "Rather, they were middle-class white women, and their suffrage movement became ever more respectable in the early years of the Progressive Era."
■ A women’s-suffrage bill was introduced in the Arkansas Senate in 1891. It was tabled without a vote being taken.
■ In 1899, the Senate debated a resolution that would have granted women voting rights in school elections and on questions involving unspecified "moral issues." Brought to a vote, it failed by 16 to 9.
As A. Elizabeth Taylor wrote in a 1956 article for the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, “Being a suffragette in 19th-century Arkansas required superior courage and determination. It meant enduring strong social disapproval and no little ridicule. Since the attitude of the general public was emotional and unreasoning, women’s rights arguments were received usually with laughter and jeers.”
According to Taylor, “The arguments against woman suffrage were both numerous and varied. Some 'antis' said that women did not want to vote and would not vote if enfranchised, while others argued that women would neglect their homes for politics. Some said that women would vote as their husbands directed, but others insisted that women would vote against their husbands' chosen candidates and thereby create dissension in families.
“Some argued that women should not vote because they did not serve in the army and therefore could not back their ballots with force. Many thought woman suffrage contrary to the Bible and to the laws of nature, and said that women should confine their activities to the home.”
At the 1868 constitutional convention, delegate Miles Ledford Langley was decades ahead of public opinion when he proposed to enfranchise women 21 years of age and over who could read and write English.
As Kristen L. Thompson wrote in her 2001 University of Arkansas at Little Rock master's thesis, Langley said that “women had been treated with a ‘great injustice’ by being forced to submit to laws and taxes when they had no representation in government. The convention met his proposal with both anger and ridicule, and it was subsequently tabled.”
In 1911, a proposed constitutional amendment granting universal suffrage in Arkansas passed the state Senate. But some members of the General Assembly still failed to take women's suffrage seriously, as noted in Taylor’s article.
Before the amendment was defeated by a 13-63 vote in the House, Rep. G.A. Hurst “contended that it had been ‘introduced in a spirit of fun and returned from the committee in a spirit of fun’ and that the women ‘should not be encouraged in this foolishness.’”
Hurst added that “women were not people in the sense that men were, but were 'angels' and should not be contaminated with politics. He argued that woman suffrage would give the cities and towns an undue advantage over the countryside, for country women would not vote while ‘the society belles [of the cities] might make a social function of election day.’”
One speaker in favor of expanded suffrage, Rep. George L. Grant, expressed the segregationist dogma of the Jim Crow era in a way that today would be clearly bigoted. It “disgusted him to see burly ignorant Negroes walking the streets with the power of the ballot [which black people rarely were allowed to exercise back then] ... while this is denied to some of the most intelligent and highly cultured beings in the world.”
In February and March 1911, the Arkansas Gazette published a syndicated editorial comic called “Ysobel the Suffragette,” which mostly made light of the ongoing efforts to gain the vote for women. Other examples of the strip can be viewed at ualrexhibits.org/suffrage.
Meanwhile in 1911, the Arkansas Democrat’s editorialist R.P. Robbins, by Taylor’s account, “considered suffrage the hobby of idle women and asserted: 'It is the woman without home life, more often, who must needs have something to employ her mind, and having tired of theater parties and poodles, her mind naturally reverts to the suffrage question.’” Read his entire editorial here.
Seven years later, both newspapers took suffrage more seriously.
As U.S. entry into World War I brought more public roles for women in 1917, the General Assembly at the urging of Gov. Charles Brough gave women voting rights in primary elections, by 71-19 in the House and 17-15 in the Senate. About 40,000 Arkansas women voted in the party primaries in May 1918.
The primaries resulted in 50 female delegates to the Democratic Party's state convention, which endorsed unlimited suffrage. Next, the constitutional convention also included full suffrage.
The Gazette and Democrat favored the proposed Constitution of 1918 when it came before the voters in a special election Dec. 14, 1918.
The Democrat editorial said, “The women of Arkansas already have the right to vote in primaries and they have exercised the suffrage so well in the primary elections that no fear should be felt that they will not be worthy of the new trust placed in them. ... The old-time argument against woman suffrage, that women's place is exclusively in the home, was shattered during the war.”
With very low turnout, the proposed Constitution was defeated.
In 1919, after the U.S. Congress passed the 19th Amendment, a special session of the General Assembly took up ratification. Bernadette Cahill's 2015 book, Arkansas Women and the Right to Vote (Butler Center Books, 2015), describes the outcome as reported by the Arkansas Gazette on July 29 with this front-page headline:
SUFFRAGE IS RATIFIED BY LEGISLATURE — Both Houses Vote Overwhelmingly for Amendment — ARKANSAS IS 12TH — Vote is 29 to 2 in the Senate and 75 to 17 in the House
The Gazette story said that “women came from many points in the state and filled the corridors of the statehouse before the hour set for convening the Legislature. Each carried a yellow banner, bearing the familiar slogan, 'Votes for women,' and made bright, inspiring pictures as they gossiped before the doors of the Senate and House chambers.”
Approval by 36 of the 48 states was needed for national adoption, with Tennessee providing the final impetus on Aug. 18, 1920. Then women voted along with men that November, here and across the land.
Almost a century later, after Clinton’s pioneering but failed presidential bid, the Arkansas Women's Suffrage Centennial website suggests that “looking back, perhaps the founding mothers who struggled so hard for the right to vote would be encouraged by that progress, or perhaps they would have expected us to get a bit farther by now.”
On the ledger’s positive side, women nationally “register to vote and turn out at the polls in greater numbers than men. In 2012, 67 percent of women were registered to vote and 58.5 percent turned out, compared with 63.1 percent of men who were registered to vote and 54.4 percent of men who turned out.”
Despite the higher election turnouts by women, “a less optimistic view of women's political participation would point out that women hold relatively few elective offices in the country.”
With women totaling just 20 percent of the 535 members in the outgoing 115th U.S. Congress, “gains in female representation have been slow coming. Women made up 10 percent of the Congress in 1993, meaning it took over 20 years to gain another 10 percent,” the website states.
As the committee’s online exhibit tells it, “The picture is even more bleak in Arkansas.” The Natural State, which boasted the first elected female U.S. senator when Hattie Caraway won a seat in 1932, today has no women in its six-member congressional delegation. Voters here have yet to elect a female governor. And in the General Assembly, as in Congress, only 20 percent of office holders are women.
If a general lesson is to be gleaned from the long campaign for women's suffrage, one is suggested by Kathleen Pate, president of the Arkansas Women's History Institute and chair of the Women's Suffrage Centennial Commemoration Committee:
"Voting is not a right that should be taken for granted."
Style on 11/05/2018
Print Headline: So close, yet so far: 100 years ago, Arkansas almost gave women full voting rights