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Few things are certain about the impact of Super Tuesday on Texas and the nation, but one thing is abundantly clear: Without women voters – among them suburban women here and African American women throughout the South – the Democratic primary would not be nearly so important. Without women voters, the White House and U.S. Senate would be safe from Democratic challenge.
In the past two decades, the gender gap in presidential races has ranged from seven to 11 points, with women not only more heavily favoring Democratic candidates but voting in higher percentages than men.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, finally giving women the right to vote. It may surprise some to learn that Texas was the first Southern state to ratify the amendment and the ninth in the nation. What’s more, through a creative political maneuver – and the demise of an anti-suffrage governor – Texas women won the right to vote before the federal amendment passed.
A San Antonio giant in women’s affairs played an important role. Eleanor Brackenridge, sister of banker and philanthropist George Brackenridge, was a statewide leader in Texas’ well-mannered and effective suffragist movement.
Before Eleanor Brackenridge assumed a leadership role in the statewide movement in 1913, suffragists had repeatedly knocked on the state’s governmental door, only to have it open wide enough to encourage hope but not win. In a state constitutional convention in 1868, the suffrage measure was assigned to a committee that recommended that it be approved. But a minority report argued that a “true” woman would shrink “from mingling in the busy noise of election days.” The convention rejected suffrage, 52-13.
Two pro-suffrage resolutions were offered in the state constitutional convention of 1875, but the committee on suffrage voted out language that awarded suffrage to all men “except minors, paupers, lunatics, felons, soldiers, and sailors.” Aliens could vote after living in the state for a year if they declared an intention to become a citizen. This would become important later, as we shall see.
Women were ignored. The convention adopted the committee report, 61-20.
Suffragist organizations waxed and waned until 1913, when Brackenridge invited representatives from organizations in seven cities to a convention at the St. Anthony Hotel. In February the year before, she had been elected president of a San Antonio suffragist group with 75 members. By November she had increased the membership to 400.
At the convention, Brackenridge was elected president of the newly formed Texas Woman Suffrage Association, later to become the Texas Equal Suffrage Association. The following year when a new president was elected, Brackenridge would be voted honorary president for life. The group would hold annual conventions until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. By 1916 there were 80 local suffragist societies in Texas and 98 two years later.
Their efforts began to have impact. In 1915 a constitutional amendment was introduced into the Texas House. It met opposition. One legislator argued it would “rob [women] of those modest charms so dear to us Southern men.” Still, the Legislature voted in favor, 90-32, but 19 abstained, leaving supporters four votes short of the two-thirds necessary for a constitutional amendment. In 1917 the House voted again on the issue. The count was 76-56 in favor, again failing to pass the two-thirds hurdle.
The next summer, the suffragists saw an opportunity and got creative in exploiting it. Gov. James “Pa” Ferguson, an opponent of women’s suffrage, was impeached and replaced by Lt. Gov. William P. Hobby, an ally of the suffragists. At their request, he tried a more workable strategy.
Instead of seeking a constitutional amendment allowing women’s suffrage, they decided to focus on letting women vote in the Democratic primary, the only one that mattered in a one-party state. Since the primary wasn’t governed by the state constitution, a simple majority vote of the Legislature would carry the day. A constitutional amendment required two-thirds of both houses and then passage by voters, who would be only men.
Hobby submitted the issue to a special session of the Legislature in 1918 and it passed the House 84-34 and the Senate 18-4. The measure passed in time for women to become eligible to vote in the July primary if they registered within 17 days. With women voting, Hobby was nominated as governor and Annie Webb Blanton as state superintendent of public instruction. Both easily won the November general election, in which only men voted.
In the next legislative session, in 1919, Hobby sought to amend the state constitution to admit women to vote in general elections and to remove aliens from the voter rolls. It passed the Senate 28-0 and the House 105-0.
When it went to the public, of course, women could not vote and aliens could. Still, suffragists ran a sophisticated campaign, with mass rallies, house-to-house canvasses, suffrage booths in department stores and theater lobbies, and speakers before any group that would have them. As many as 1,500 women and men made up the field force.
Newspapers gave the campaign wide coverage. The service of women in the recent World War was stressed. President Woodrow Wilson declared his support for the women of Texas, and both U.S. senators endorsed the measure. But many women opposed it; among their arguments was that women’s suffrage would lead to Negro domination of the South and to socialism.
The vote took place on May 24, 1919. The measure failed by 25,000 votes. Some suffrage opponents argued that the vote validated their position and should lead to a repeal of suffrage in the primaries. They also argued that the Texas Legislature should vote against the federal constitutional amendment should the U.S. Senate pass it, as the House of Representatives already had.
But supporters said an analysis of the vote showed large numbers of aliens had voted and opposed the amendment.
Two months later, the U.S. Senate passed the federal amendment and it headed to the states. Hobby called a special session for June 23. The Texas House voted the next day to approve it, 96-21. The Senate delayed their vote for five days with some senators suggesting they wait for a public referendum. But a majority pushed the issue and it passed with a voice vote.
Texas became the first state in the South and the ninth state in the nation to ratify the amendment. It would finally become part of the U.S. Constitution when Tennessee ratified it on Aug. 18.
Note: Much of the material in this column came from Citizens at Last: The Woman Suffrage Movement in Texas, Ruthe Winegarten and Judith N. McArthur, editors.
This article has been updated to correct the date of Tennessee’s ratification of the 19th Amendment.