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  • More Than Double:African American Women and the Rise of a "Women's Vote"
  • Liette Gidlow (bio)

On a late October day in 1920, forty-seven-year-old homemaker Matilda Wheelock and three other African American women visited the Board of Elections in Phoebus, Virginia, to register to vote. Each filled out an application, signed it, and answered a question about the definition of "a republic." All four women registered without incident.

Wheelock's experience was not typical for southern African American women in the first elections after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. The document that testifies to her success—a remarkable field report by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) investigator Addie Hunton—also details the obstructionism that many Black women encountered at registrars' offices across the South. Wheelock and her neighbors succeeded in registering, but Wheelock's own daughter did not. That same day, the registrar "quizzed" twenty-three-year-old Lucile Wheelock, a college graduate, for nearly an hour before announcing that she "did not pass."1

The Wheelocks and their neighbors were part of a fresh surge to the polls of southern African Americans that began in the fall of 1920 and continued for years afterward. As newly enfranchised southern Black women tested their new rights, many southern Black men also seized the moment to try to regain the voting rights they, their fathers, or their grandfathers had lost. Even though many aspiring voters failed in their efforts, some succeeded, and their successes, together with the persistent demand for voting rights by those who failed, altered the course of US politics for decades to come.

These developments among African Americans were not the result that most white woman suffragists sought from the Nineteenth Amendment. After ratification, these suffragists worked to harness the power of women's ballots to try to solve pressing problems like economic insecurity and continuing legal inequality. As the 1920s wore on, white female voters failed to develop into a cohesive voting bloc or "woman's vote." Despite enfranchisement, suffragists' goals seemed as unattainable as ever, leaving many contemporaries then, and scholars since, to conclude that the Nineteenth Amendment "doubled" the electorate but did little to change election results or policy outcomes. Women's apparently low turnout at the polls, although difficult to measure precisely, made a mockery of suffragists' claims that women wanted to vote. Nor did many women win election to [End Page 52] office. By the end of the decade, progressive causes largely faltered. Woman suffrage recognized women as equal citizens in this signal civic right—that remained important in itself—but, frankly, not much changed.2

This interpretation of women's suffrage, however, does not fully account for the activities of aspiring African American women voters in the Jim Crow South at the time or more broadly across the United States in the decades since. Many contemporaries assumed that southern Black women had no interest in voting; certainly, white supremacists had long made the same claim about southern Black men. That assumption may have been the natural corollary to Booker T. Washington's well-publicized claim that African American men had no desire for "political equality," but it was far from the truth. In the fall of 1920, southern African Americans—newly enfranchised women together with male family members and neighbors, many of them veterans of the First World War with proud records of service to country who were now exempt from poll taxes—surged to the polls to claim, or reclaim, their right to vote. Their fresh demands for the ballot, triggered by the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, changed the course of US politics for the next hundred years.

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In the months after ratification, African American women succeeded in registering or voting in communities in at least nine southern or border states, sometimes by the hundreds or thousands and often accompanied by men who were also determined to participate. In Charles County, Maryland, south of Washington, DC, some 160 Black women and nearly 90 Black men registered themselves as Republicans during the September registration period. In Savannah, Georgia, a local newspaper reported that "an astonishingly large number of negro women—more than...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 52-61
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-29
Open Access
No
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