The history that we were taught in school was, at best, incomplete — something we’re being forced to reckon with now in many painful ways.
Most of that is in the context of our racial history, but there are other aspects of history that got whitewashed out of the textbooks, too.
This August marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. You’d think that a state that venerates its history as much as Virginia would consider a movement that brought half of humanity into our formal civic life to be a historic occasion. That’s not what Virginians of a certain age were taught, though. In the Virginia textbooks that remained in circulation into the 1970s, the campaign for women’s suffrage merited only two paragraphs out of 599 pages. Even in historian Virginius Dabney’s classic tome “Virginia: The New Dominion,” women’s suffrage rated only three paragraphs. Now comes a new book that tells, as Paul Harvey might have said, “the rest of the story.”
Written by three researchers at the Library of Virginia — Brent Tarter, Marianne Julienne and Barbara Batson — “The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia” tells the history that the state wouldn’t teach its schoolchildren. It’s understandable why. The campaign to allow women to vote doesn’t fit neatly into the official story that Virginia’s politicized textbook committee wanted to tell. Here’s another teaser: It doesn’t fit neatly into the story that a lot of people would prefer to tell today. History is messy, and this part of history is no exception.
The first women to vote in Virginia were not in 1920. They were in 1832. That year, Staunton allowed women who owned property to vote in an advisory referendum on whether to raise taxes for a municipal water system. Eight did so, even though the state constitution limited voting to men — white men. Staunton got around that prohibition by declaring its referendum to be merely “advisory.”
John Underwood, who presided over the convention that drew up a new constitution after the Civil War, made the case for extending the right to vote to women — but was ignored. That didn’t stop Anna Whitehead Bodeker of Richmond from showing up at the polls in 1871 and insisting that she had the right to vote by virtue of the 14th Amendment. The amendment had been intended to make it clear that newly freed slaves were citizens of the United States. Bodeker argued that its language declaring “all persons born or naturalized in the United States ... are citizens” applied to women as well and that, as a citizen, she was entitled to vote. Voting officials disagreed, but Bodeker refused to leave until she put a note into the ballot box that outlined her argument. Bodeker is the heroine most Virginians never knew they had.
Through the late 1800s there were sporadic attempts to push women’s suffrage in Virginia, many of those centered in Lynchburg, which was an early hotbed of suffragists. Those efforts, though, didn’t really go anywhere. Not until 1909 did there begin a sustained push in Virginia to extend the franchise to women.
Here’s where things become both uncomfortable and interesting. The women leading the suffrage movement in Virginia generally came from well-to-do families. They had the social connections with legislators. They also had servants at home — typically African American — to do the household chores so they could devote their time to suffrage work. The book does note one prominent working-class exception — Lillie Mary Barbour of Roanoke was secretary of the local chapter of the United Garment Workers of America. Still, the suffrage movement was mostly the story of upper-class women trying to persuade men of all classes, and it didn’t always go well.
The suffragettes sometimes faced violent opposition — literal violence. Lila Meade Valentine of Richmond didn’t simply have to face down hecklers at speaking engagements; she had pepper thrown in her face. Nora Houston of Richmond had rocks hurled at her; she kept one as a souvenir. When Virginia women demonstrated in Washington, men spit on them and tried to trip them. Faith Morgan of Newport News responded to one outstretched foot by intentionally stepping on it with all the force she could muster, leaving the man howling in pain. “The glow of my satisfaction is ever burning,” she later wrote.
Besides the usual objections to allowing women to vote, there was an additional one in Virginia and other Southern states: Race. Many white men were adamantly opposed to allowing Black women to vote, and if that meant denying white women the right to vote, so be it. Virginia’s white male politicians had successfully disenfranchised most Black men but were still petrified at the thought of Black women voting. That led some Virginia suffragists to make the counter-argument — that allowing women to vote would actually strengthen white supremacy because there were more whites than Blacks. Like we said, history is messy. However, it’s often relevant. When the 19th Amendment was before the General Assembly, one delegation of Alabama politicians sent a telegram pleading with Virginians to reject the amendment. The Alabama pols warned that if women were allowed to vote, Virginia may as well “tear down your Confederate monuments.” We can only imagine what those Alabama pols from 1919 would think of a Virginia today in which not one but two Black women are running for governor and empty pedestals stand on Monument Avenue.
We said history is messy. Here’s another example: The suffrage movement in Virginia failed. Virginia refused to grant women the right to vote on its own, and it refused to ratify the 19th Amendment (until decades after it had gone into effect). Virginia had women’s suffrage imposed on it. The book describes how some registrars quit rather than enroll women after the amendment took effect. It also describes how others tried to block Black women from registering by making them wait for hours and then rejected them for not being able to answer obscure questions about U.S. government that white women weren’t required to answer. That up-close look at how the Black vote was suppressed is something else that never made its way into Virginia’s official histories. But here it is in this one. If you didn’t learn this history in school, here’s your chance to make up for that.
Not all of our history is up on monuments, but some of the women in this book should be.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!