Three suffragists casting votes in New York City(?), ca. 1917. Photo courtesy of National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress).

Three suffragists casting votes in New York City(?), ca. 1917. Photo courtesy of National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress).

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“She Had Voted. A Marvel.”: First-Time Women Voters

The first time I voted was the 2004 Presidential election. It was my first year of college, and I was very eager to exercise one of my rights of citizenship. I had registered to vote and applied for my absentee ballot well before my eighteenth birthday. The day I turned eighteen, after celebrating by purchasing a lottery ticket, I voted for president of the United States.

One of the reasons I was so excited to vote was that I had just learned the backstory of how women won the right to vote in 1920. Earlier in the fall, I had attended a showing of the HBO film Iron Jawed Angels, a dramatization of the creation of the National Women’s Party by Alice Paul, in celebration of Women’s Equality Day.

Twelve years later, I was able to participate in another first, voting in an election where for the first time a woman ran as a major political party candidate for president of the United States. In celebration of all the women who made it possible for women to vote and paved the way for Shirley Chisholm and Hillary Clinton to run for president, below are curated clips of the Southern Oral History Program’s archives on first-time women voters.

 

Eulalie Salley, a South Carolina suffragette and wife of the mayor of Aiken, recalls the first time she saw a woman who had voted.

Eulalie Salley: A few western states came into the union with the vote. They’d never had it. I remember in speaking, somebody introduced Bertha Munsell. She came here from Colorado. They said, “We have a lady to speak to us today, a lady you’ve never seen before. You may not believe it, but she’s a lady. She’s a lady who has voted.” And Bertha got up and she said, “I feel just like the ring-tailed tiger in the circus.” (laughing) And she was a curiosity. The men wanted to come up and touch her. She had voted. A marvel.

 

In the fight for women’s suffrage, there were differing ideas on how to gain the right to vote for women—to campaign state-by-state, to allow new states into the Union that had already granted women suffrage, or through a constitutional amendment. Mabel Pollitzer, a Charleston, South Carolina, suffragette and one of the first women to vote in the state, discusses the strategies, including picketing a war-time president and what ultimately led to the ratification of the amendment with Tennessee voting in its favor.

Mabel Pollitzer: But you asked me if the picketing helped. It was the most marvelous strategy. I mean, when we win in war anything that is honorable is considered right. Here we wanted to win not for the few women who were picketing, but for the mass of women in America who could not speak their thoughts and who could not work to attain their rights.

Constance Myers: Were there bonfires lit and kept lighted locally?

Mabel Pollitzer: No. I know of no bonfires except at the capital. It was to remind the senators and the congressmen and to remind the president that state-by-state suffrage was coming. But it should be that national amendment that had been introduced into Congress. The vote for women, for which they had been fighting for forty-eight years, but intensely, fighting since 1913. The National Woman’s Party was organized January 2, 1913, and from then on the work was intense, but it became intense, intenser, and most intense around 1917. Then the strategy was to do everything to bring it about before 1920. You see, there was going to be a new election in 1920 between Harding and Cox. The whole aim was to get it speedily. And as I told you last time, at first Woodrow Wilson seemed in a stage almost of apathy toward women’s suffrage.

Constance Myers: Not antagonistic, just apathetic?

Mabel Pollitzer: I would say it was apathetic. Then he became interested in getting it state-by-state. And he worked to get suffrage in New York State. But the National Woman’s Party, who had introduced the national amendment, wanted that amendment passed. Then the thing was to get Woodrow Wilson. He then became really, deeply interested in having the amendment passed. During ratification, when it was brought up before the different states, he himself telegraphed the different governors in states where ratification would be difficult. In other words, later, he felt it was important. Now, the point was, was he feeling that way mostly because of wanting women to vote or was it because he wanted to get the women’s vote for the Democratic party? And consequently their strategy was pitting Democrat against Republican. It was Harding that worked so hardoh so hard it wasto get that ratification in Tennessee. It was Harding then. But it was also Wilson then working on the Democrats of Tennessee, through the state machinery, to get the governor to get the Democrats of the legislature to vote for it. It was a regular seesaw.

 

But even after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, not all women were allowed to vote. Jim Crow laws in the South made voting very difficult for African Americans. Some laws, often requiring reading tests, were left up to the discretion of the proctors to determine whether or not African Americans were able to vote. Viola Turner, treasurer of the North Carolina Mutual Insurance, part of Black Wall Street in Durham, North Carolina, reflects on her first time registering to vote, and how she would not have been able to had African American community leader and NC Mutual President C. C. Spaulding not been with her.

Viola Turner: I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the word “vote,” meaning something pertaining to me. I guess maybe I’d heard the word because I read very early and read anything and everything that could be written. If it were anywhere within my sight, I read it. So may have seen the word, but it had no significance to me until got to Morris Brown.

Walter Weare: Mr. Spaulding, then, would take new employees?

Turner: No. He was taking old employees. Because, you see, at that time, that was the beginning of registration here. Very few people, blacks, had been registered.

Weare: This is the nineteen-twenties?

Turner: Well, got here in 1924, so it must have been probably the first year was here. Because he was taking just three or four at time down. They had probably been battling it out, arguing it out, how it was going to be done, but he and some of the leaders must have been putting up quite a fight, saying, “It’s got to be done.” So, they worked out the way it’s going to be done. So, they’re going to take few at time down there. And only somebody like Mr. Spaulding probably could get you registered. Wouldn’t doubt it. All of it that’s true. I imagine that if I walked down there to be registered, I never would have gotten registered. Listen, this, to me, is the priceless part of that. We walked down there. There sits a man with his book, and then his Bible. I believe it was a Bible; might be wrong. But any rate, a book. So he hands you that to read. That’s no sweat. I read what he said, what is there. So he gives me the privilege. He writes my name down, address, and whatever else goes with it. Next girl comes up. He gives it to her. She reads, and he says to her, “That’s not correct.” I think that was about the third. I think two of us got by before we questioned him. But any rate, when he questioned her, he tells her the word she’s mispronounced. And, would you believe it? You would never know; you’d never recognize that word. So he reads the sentence and you’d never heard such reading in your life. For somebody sitting up there telling you can’t read. Well [laughter], I just stood there looking. Spaulding didn’t make any display of his temper, which he had plenty of, and would, on occasion. But he did say, “Well, when can she come back to register?” And that rascal told him when she could read what he gave her to read, or something like that. She did go back and she did get registered later. Mr. Spaulding saw to that. But would like is for anyone else to have been present to hear that man read, and hear the word that he called her on, hear what he called it. We snickered all the way back to the building, as soon as we got out of his office. Because it tickled us to death. Of course, you know, we were laughing but we were indignant-mad as we could be. The idea! And, of course, the girl was embarrassed in there. But when she got on the outside and when we got through with her, she was just ready to go back and do it again. Now, that’s how you got registered here in Durham at that time. Somebody that they knew they couldn’t say no to, that had some pull somewhere, took you down personally. She’s still living, and just learned that she’s living very near me, where she used to live, once upon time. But that old rascal couldn’t read a lick himself, but he did that to us. And am quite sure that we didn’t have rough time at all. But can you imagine somebody else who tried to go in there and get registered, and they didn’t have C. C. Spaulding standing right there with them?

 

Some African American women were able to vote without hindrance before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In this clip, Margaret Walker, noted African American poet and author, discusses the first time she voted.

John Egerton: You were a real strong believer in Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Margaret Walker: Mrs. more than Mr. I met and talked and knew Mrs. Roosevelt.

Egerton: Was she as true blue as most people say?

Walker: She was wonderful. You know, I had been told as a little girl growing up and hearing about her that she was such an ugly woman and she sounded worse than she looked. That was the Southern feeling. When I saw her I said there was nothing ugly about this woman. She was so beautiful, so absolutely gracious. She stood and talked to me as much as Mrs. [Mary McLeod] Bethune did. She came with Mrs. Bethune to Livingstone Co1lege. That’s where I met her. I cast my first vote in this life, in this country, in Chicago in 1936 for Roosevelt.

 

Sources:

Interview with Eulalie Salley by Constance Ashton Myers, 15 September 1973 G-0054, in the Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/sohp/id/11077/rec/4

Interview with Mabel Pollitzer by Constance Ashton Myers, 19 September 1973 G-0047-1, in the Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/sohp/id/11107/rec/17

Interview with Viola G. Turner by Walter B. Weare, 15 April 1979. C-0015 in the Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/sohp/id/10339/rec/1

Interview with Margaret Walker by John Egerton, 7 June 1991. A-0357 in the Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/sohp/id/8912/rec/29