What the First Women Voters Experienced When Registering for the 1920 Election
The process varied by state, with some making accommodations for the new voting bloc and others creating additional obstacles
“Play Election Devised to Teach Women How to Vote,” blared a Boston Globe headline. The Washington Post discussed the League of Women Voters’ planned “schools of citizenship to train women in civic duties,” and in the Midwest, the Grand Forks Herald detailed a mock voting booth—complete with “judges, clerks, printed ballots with fictitious names, and a regular [ballot] box”—set to appear at the upcoming Minnesota State Fair.
In the months leading up to the 1920 election, American newspapers covered an array of unconventional educational exercises unfolding across the country. These training schemes were among the many campaigns launched to mobilize women voters following the August 18, 1920, ratification of the 19th Amendment, which extended the franchise to (mostly white) women on a federal level.
In many states, particularly in the West, women had already been voting for years, if not decades. Wyoming introduced full women’s suffrage in 1869, partly in order to attract single women to the underpopulated territory, and Utah—hoping to show that Mormon women “were not oppressed by the practice of polygamy,” according to the National Park Service—followed suit shortly thereafter. By 1919, 15 states (only two of which were located east of the Mississippi River) had granted women full voting rights; in other parts of the country, women found themselves barred from voting for president and members of Congress but allowed to vote in school, local or state elections.
No matter how groundbreaking the 19th Amendment was, it failed to stipulate who was responsible for ensuring that this new voting bloc could—and would—cast ballots. Without a centralized organizational structure in place, get-out-the-vote efforts fell to state and local governments, political parties and nonpartisan organizations, all of which had varying approaches to the issue at hand. Inevitably, this uneven rollout resulted in a registration process that played out differently depending on an individual’s race, ethnicity and geographic location.
“The 1920 election is a good moment to remember how much elections are handled at the state level,” says Christina Wolbrecht, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame. “… The 19th Amendment is ratified, but it’s up to the states to change their entire electoral administration.”
Consider the four Southern states in which women had been barred from voting booths entirely: As Wolbrecht and J. Kevin Corder, a political scientist at Western Michigan University, explain in A Century of Votes for Women: American Elections Since Suffrage, officials in Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina decreed that individuals who had failed to register six months prior to the general election were ineligible to vote—a line of reasoning that conveniently overlooked the fact that women only won suffrage some three months after local registration deadlines had passed.
Blocking women from voting was a deliberate choice made by state lawmakers, says Wolbrecht. She adds, “[These states] are dominated by the Democratic Party, and the entire system is designed to minimize participation in elections,” particularly by African American men and women but also by women more broadly.
Just one Georgia woman, Mary Jarett White of Stephens County, managed to register in time for the election. An ardent suffragist, she appeared in front of the registrar on April 1, “signed her name on the dotted line, paid her poll tax and then calmly witnessed the suffrage tempest,” according to the Atlanta Constitution. Come Election Day, White cast her ballot for failed Democratic candidate James M. Cox and his running mate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt; in doing so, she became “the first and only woman in Georgia who would legally vote in the November presidential election.” (Though some historians suggest that early women voters favored the Republican Party, which was then closely associated with the Progressive movement, A Century of Votes for Women notes that women tended to follow state-wide trends. Women in Democratic-leaning states—like Georgia—tended to support Democrats, and women in Republican-leaning states voted Republican.)
The Chicago Defender, one of the country’s most prominent black newspapers, cataloged the many obstacles faced by African American citizens who tried to register in the South. As Wolbrecht and Corder recount in the journal Insights on Law and Society, black women and individuals who sought to help them—typically black men—“experienced murder, kidnap and lynching, threats of arson against homes and businesses, and in one town, 500 warrants against [people] charged with ‘registering illegally.’” According to Wolbrecht, Southerners initially “feared that the same violence and social control they used to keep black men from the ballot box would be harder to [use on] black women.” These concerns proved to be unfounded, as most white men showed few qualms about intimidating black women with the same force as they did black men.
Virginia emerged as a particularly egregious example of racially based registration disparities. In Richmond, registrars appointed three additional deputies to help with the influx of white women voters but refused to hire even one extra deputy to work with black applicants. The 2,410 black women who managed to register represented just 12.5 percent of those eligible, according to a 1993 essay by historian Suzanne Lebsock. Comparatively,10,645 white women, or 26.8 percent of relevant city residents, succeeded in registering for the general election.
Media coverage of the rush to register appealed to white Virginians’ fears of losing their grasp on power. Newspapers ran racist headlines juxtaposed with photographs of long lines of black women waiting to register—a natural result of the limited number of registrars on hand to help them—and no line in front of the registrar for white women. The implicit message was clear: White women who failed to register ran the risk of allowing African American voters to sway the election.
Attempts to stop black individuals from exercising their right to vote continued beyond the 1920 race between Cox and the Republican candidate, eventual president Warren G. Harding. As Corder says, “You really don’t get a big push to enfranchise African American women in the South until after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That’s [almost] another 50 years.”
In addition to outright intimidation, states used residentiary requirements, poll taxes, literacy tests, morality clauses and other discriminatory measures to limit access to the ballot box. These election laws targeted not only African American voters, but low-income white residents and, in the Northeast, Irish and Italian immigrants.
The lengths to which other states went to accommodate women voters underscores the decidedly undemocratic nature of Southern states’ electoral systems. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, for instance, the local registrar made extensive provisions for women voters despite complaining that doing so required “a great deal of extra work,” and in Chicago, officials organized an extra registration day.
Boston also emerged as a seeming bastion of democracy: Its election commission allowed women voters to register early in anticipation of the 19th Amendment’s passage, and upon receiving confirmation of ratification, the city’s mayor extended registration deadlines, urging “the women of Boston [to] show the way in exercising the newly conferred power.”
Despite the Massachusetts capital’s seemingly progressive climate, newspaper coverage of the city’s registration efforts had decidedly sexist overtones: On August 3, the Boston Post decried the women who “created considerable of a furor by refusing absolutely” to tell “some ‘fresh election clerk’” their age, adding that “[t]he average age of the women who registered yesterday was 36, which might be taken as confirmation …that a woman is at her best after 35.”
Other examples of states that took steps to streamline the registration process include North Carolina, whose legislature exempted women from paying poll taxes, and Connecticut, which automatically rolled women signed up for local school elections over to the general election list.
Strategies for encouraging voter registration ranged from “voting booths at the state fair, where you could go in and try your hand at pulling a lever or filling out a ballot,” says Wolbrecht, “… [to] displays in department store windows of women mannequins going to vote, standing in line [and demonstrating] the very simple, everyday bureaucracy of it.”
Organizers, adds Corder, “went to great lengths to familiarize women in the summer of 1920 with what was going to happen in November,” especially in states with highly competitive races.
Data cited in Wolbrecht and Corder’s 2016 book, Counting Women’s Ballots: Female Voters From Suffrage Through the New Deal, suggests that around 36 percent of eligible women and 68 percent of eligible men voted in the 1920 presidential election. (Comparatively, 63 percent of women and 59 percent of men voted in the 2016 election, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.)
During the mid-1920s, this relatively low turnout led several top publications to question whether women’s suffrage was a failure. Wolbrecht explains, “The blame or the responsibility is usually put on women directly, [suggesting] there’s something about women, they’re not interested in politics, they don’t learn about it, they’re not educated.”
Counting Women’s Ballots argues that such assessments overlook crucial state-by-state differences in turnout and, by extension, registration: Thanks to its lengthy residency requirements, poll tax and proven record of discriminatory registration practices, Virginia had a dismal women’s turnout rate of just 6 percent. Kentucky and Missouri, both of which had highly competitive races on the ballot and no poll taxes or literacy tests, stood at the other end of the spectrum with turnout rates of more than 50 percent.
Though Massachusetts and Connecticut took steps to accommodate women voters during registration, turnout hovered just above 20 percent—likely a reflection of the states’ exclusionary voting restrictions, including literacy tests and poll taxes.
Entrenched cultural values that elevated men over women also contributed to low turnout. As Wolbrecht points out, white women in the South soon mobilized against poll taxes and the men who found having to pay fees for themselves and their female family members emasculating. More broadly, the idealized concept of “Republican Motherhood,” referring to the American republic and not the political party, instilled the belief that women’s role in politics was to encourage their sons’ civic interests, not their own.
Corder argues that the 1920 election’s turnout rate actually reflects a “remarkable accomplishment,” particularly when considered in terms of the brief window between ratification and the election, as well as the many barriers placed on women’s registration.
Overall, Wolbrecht and Corder argue in Insights on Law and Society, “For women, winning the vote gave way to a long-term effort to overcome social norms that discouraged participation, lack of experience with both voting itself and with strategies to mobilize voters, and a federal structure that not only did not facilitate, but often discouraged, voting.”