Woman Suffrage. Liberty Bell for Suffrage. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-123456]

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But That Isn’t the Whole Story

I registered today. And honey you’ll never know how I felt when I walked out with that piece of paper. But I know how a mockingbird feels when he perches on the topmost swaying bough and fast tells his heart’s secrets to the world. But for a hundred and sixty pounds excess baggage and the trifling matter of lack of voice, I could have done it myself!

-Minnie Fisher Cunningham, president of the Texas Equal Suffrage Association, 1918, after registering to vote for the first time


In 2020, we’re celebrating the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, which prevents barring or abridging the right to vote on account of sex. Notice, I didn’t say it gave American women the right to vote, as a lot of women remained disfranchised well after 1920. And yet, it was still an important milestone and accomplishment; one that took a tremendous amount of work from a diverse group of suffragists. There are three in particular who help tell a fuller version of this story in my home state of Texas: Minnie Fisher Cunningham, Christia Adair, and Jovita Idar.

Minnie Fisher Cunningham was the president of the Texas Equal Suffrage Association through good times and bad. She put in the thankless work of organizing for suffrage years before it seemed likely to pay off, and she battled an anti-suffrage governor who won reelection easily despite her efforts. She braved an automobile tour on rough roads through South Texas in the blazing heat to organize against that governor, James Ferguson, in the heart of his supporters. After being re-elected, Governor Ferguson abused his power, tried to force the University of Texas to fire professors he considered his political opponents, and defunded the university for resisting. Cunningham helped organize the disparate groups opposed to Ferguson’s actions, including the women of Texas and suffragists. The legislature, spurred to action by these groups, impeached and convicted Ferguson, who resigned before the Texas Senate voted to remove him and permanently ban him from holding office. Ferguson argued that the verdict and punishment were nullified by his resignation. He then ran against his former lieutenant governor for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in one-party Texas, controlled by the Democrats. Seizing the moment, Cunningham convinced acting governor Hobby to enfranchise women to vote in primaries only, ensuring that Hobby would be re-elected. The quid pro quo deal between suffragists and male Progressive legislators was secret but effective. Women voted in the state primary in large numbers and delivered the election for Hobby, leaving Ferguson out in the cold. But no good deed goes unpunished, and Cunningham was then forced into a grueling state suffrage amendment campaign against her wishes by these same male Progressive legislators who argued that the suffragists owed them. While it strategically helped the state’s prohibition amendment, the suffrage amendment (which women couldn’t vote on as it was a general election and not a primary) failed by 25,000 votes. Undeterred, just four weeks later, Cunningham used primary suffrage to pressure the Texas legislature to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, one of four crucial Southern states to do so, and in spite of the failed suffrage referendum of the previous month. Cunningham’s work was crucial in getting partial suffrage in Texas, getting Texas to ratify, and in so doing achieving woman suffrage via the Nineteenth Amendment.

But that isn’t the whole story.

When Christia Adair moved to Corpus Christi, she organized Black women and formed an alliance with progressive white women’s clubs. They supported prohibition and progressive reforms. When white suffragists asked for Adair’s help gathering signatures in support of suffrage, she obliged. When Texas passed primary women suffrage, Adair and her Black club women went to the polls but were turned away by election officials. Adair asked specifically why they weren’t being allowed to vote, and the official told her that Black people don’t vote in the primaries in Texas. Texas legislated primary elections in 1903, leaving the terms of that primary up to each party. The Democrats ran an all-white primary, which they left local officials to enforce. Primary woman suffrage passed in the Southern states of Texas and Arkansas in part because the all-white primary assured white Southern Democrats that this form of suffrage would not enfranchise Black women. Primary suffrage allowed these politicians to test the Jim Crow election laws already in place to see if they would be enough to bar Black women like they barred Black men. White politicians fearfully acknowledged that racist violence was part of what kept Black men from the polls, and they feared they would not be able to wield this racist weapon with the same effect on Black women without backlash.

Even Black women, well aware of the all-white primary, tried to register to vote in towns where female voters were required to do so. In Houston, when they were turned away, Black women returned with a letter from the nascent local NAACP threatening to sue if they weren’t allowed to register. The tax collector changed his mind and registered the women, though they wouldn’t be able to vote in the all-white primary. In Orange, Texas, a group of Black church women went to register together in 1918 and sued the registrar who turned them away, but a white judge threw out their complaint. Seemingly unwilling to recognize their agency, Cunningham feared the anti-suffragists had organized Black women to try to get the primary suffrage law thrown out.

But that isn’t the whole story.

Like much of the United States in the late nineteenth century, Texas allowed immigrant declarants to vote after they filed their “first papers,” their intention to become citizens. The two largest groups of immigrants in Texas in the 1910s were Germans and Mexicans, many of whom were refugees of the ongoing Mexican Revolution. Jovita Idar of Laredo, Texas, founded La Liga Femenil Mexicanista in 1911 and worked to improve educational opportunities for Mexican students in segregated and impoverished Texas schools. In her work as a journalist, she advocated for suffrage. She wrote an editorial criticizing President Wilson for intervening militarily in the Mexican Revolution. In response the Texas Rangers arrived to shut down the newspaper that published her criticism, but she boldly stood in the doorway, gripping each side of the doorframe, and refused to move. The Rangers left that day but returned the next morning and destroyed the press.

Idar worked against the nativist movement spurred by World War I that changed the nation’s immigration laws and tried to limit the rights of immigrants already in the United States. These nativists wanted to take the right to vote away from immigrant declarants, and they allied with white suffragists to do so. The same progressive politicians who would gain votes by enfranchising white women would be aided by taking the vote away from immigrants, who often supported their political opponents. These politicians did not give up when their first efforts at a constitutional amendment requiring all voters to be citizens failed in the 1910s. The 1918 primary woman suffrage bill brought to light the fact that they could change primary voting rules with a simple state law, instead of the constitutional amendment and required referendum needed to change the rules for the general election. Alongside the primary suffrage law, and for the first time in state history, the state passed a primary citizenship law requiring primary voters to be citizens. The 1918 Texas primary suffrage law tested whether the Jim Crow restrictions were enough to bar Black women from voting, while also testing the state’s willingness and ability to disfranchise immigrant declarants. Topping it all off, the legislature added an informal literacy test to women’s voter registration. They required women to fill out the paperwork in their own hand, a requirement not applied to Texas men and one Cunningham believed was intended to target the Mexican vote.

After the primary election went well in 1918, nativists continued their efforts. The state legislature approved another state amendment requiring all voters to be citizens that would have to go to referendum to be added to the Texas Constitution. This amendment was combined with the state woman suffrage amendment, which Cunningham already considered to be strategically unwise. However, when forced into this state amendment suffrage campaign, Cunningham took National American Woman Suffrage Association president Carrie Chapman Catt’s advice and made the citizenship clause the focus of the campaign. While Cunningham refrained from openly discussing race, she accused immigrant voters of being disloyal and a major problem in Texas elections, particularly with the state’s loyal servicemen still overseas and disfranchised for the length of their service by state law. These soldiers would be further disfranchised by the state’s poll tax, which had to be paid by February 1 each year.

Servicemen returning after February 1 would remain disfranchised even after paying their poll tax for the year. However, pro-Ferguson judges published a curious set of editorials arguing that the poll tax was never meant to disfranchise loyal servicemen and that election officials should allow them to vote regardless of state law. Suffragists began to lobby the legislature for a solution that did not rely on lax enforcement of voting laws. The legislature passed a law to enfranchise returning servicemen, but it was deemed unconstitutional by the state attorney general. In response Governor Hobby vetoed it. However, amid the patriotic fervor of World War I and in an election year, this turned out to be a terrible PR move. Hobby quickly called the legislature back into special session to pass a constitutional version. Cunningham and the suffragists lobbied for a constitutional state law that would enfranchise soldiers before the 1919 election. The second soldier-voting law was similar to the first one, but Hobby signed it anyway. Ahead of the state referendum on suffrage in 1919, suffragists publicized their hand in getting the soldier-voting law passed. Behind the scenes, Cunningham admitted to an ulterior motive. She was convinced the Ferguson judges wrote the editorials in an effort to have election officials agree not to enforce the poll tax on anyone in uniform, and that the plan was to march Carranza’s Mexican army across the border and have them vote against the suffrage amendment in South Texas.

The disfranchising efforts did not end with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. In 1921, the state legislature passed another citizenship voting requirement, and this time, with the votes of white women enfranchised under the Nineteenth Amendment, it passed. Immigrants lost the right to vote in Texas in 1921, and by the end of the 1920s no state allowed declarant immigrant suffrage. Further, Texas politicians feared the few Black women who managed to vote despite the Jim Crow voting laws. Seeking to strengthen the white primary, the state legislated it in 1923 instead of leaving it to the Democratic Party to enforce. Adair didn’t vote in 1918, but she went on to serve in the revived Houston NAACP, which worked against the 1923 white primary law and finally took down the all-white primary itself in 1944.

While we commemorate the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, let us remember the women not enfranchised in 1920, especially in the South. Black women, Native women, immigrant women, American women in the territories, and even white women disproportionately disfranchised by the poll tax. While we smile at Cunningham’s self-deprecating story of her joy at registering and voting, let us also remember the women who continued to fight for the vote and recognize the ongoing fight for equality and access at the ballot box today.