"The weight of their votes": Southern women and politics in the 1920s

Schuyler, Lorraine Gates, Department of History, University of Virginia
Edward, Ayers, Corcoran Department of History
Balogh, Brian, As-History, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace, As-History, University of Virginia
Aron, Cindy, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Milkis, Sidney, As-Dept Of Politics, University of Virginia

In 1921 the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote of Virginia's newly enfranchised women "their protests now carry with them the weight of their votes, whereas formerly they were at the most persuasive." This dissertation measures the weight of those votes. It examines the way enfranchisement transformed southern women's political activities and how politicians responded to women with the ballot. The Nineteenth Amendment offered a rare distribution of political power in the New South, and an examination of its effects suggests that woman suffrage was important not only symbolically, but structurally and substantively.

Symbolically, woman suffrage posed a direct challenge to all-male politics. Immediately following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, southern white women began serving as campaign stump speakers, voter registrars, election judges, candidates, and officeholders. African-American women staged citizenship schools and organized registration drives. White women worked to clean up polling places and demanded that politicians participate in new political rituals. At the same time, white men were forced to defer to the wishes of white women in order to court their votes.

Newly enfranchised women challenged not only the southern gender order, but the structure of southern politics. Democratic party elites in 1920 faced an unpredictable bloc of new voters whose party loyalties could not be discerned. At the same time, southern Republicans saw an opportunity to build a viable opposition with the help of white women voters. While Republicans courted these new voters, southern white women denounced party regularity, and female activists, both white and black, worked to bring new voters to the polls.

By mobilizing new voters and undermining disfranchisement, southern white women heightened the anxiety and the responsiveness - of politicians who feared an electoral revolt. For the first time, southern white women had ballots with which to back their policy requests, and in the 1920s they worked to leverage their ballots in exchange for legislative reform. African-American women, by contrast, generally had no ballots to leverage. Thus, while enfranchisement immediately and permanently altered the way politicians responded to white clubwomen, disfranchisement ensured that most black clubwomen would remain unable to approach their representatives as constituents.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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