A century ago, women in Arkansas – or at least most of them – expected to vote for the first time. The 1917 legislature passed a measure allowing women to vote in primary elections for state political parties. It was three years before the United States Constitution was amended to empower women nationally.
While Arkansas might have been a leader in women’s suffrage, it didn’t happen overnight. Interestingly and surprisingly, far-sighted men and women have worked for women’s political rights in Arkansas since the Reconstruction Era Constitutional Convention of 1868.
I often cite the 1868 convention as a possible turning point in Arkansas history, one of those rare times when circumstances and opportunities met in a different kind of setting after the Civil War. The old order had been swept away. Young men from out of state, some for venal and selfish reasons, but others with a combination of idealistic and political motivations, found themselves attending a convention to draft a new charter for Arkansas. .
One of these men was a young Clark County delegate, Miles L. Langley. On the 29th day of deliberations, Langley proposed that “all citizens, aged twenty-one, who can read and write the English language, be eligible for elective suffrage …” This thunderclap was followed the next day by a strong defense of his proposal, in which Langley said his wife was just as qualified to vote as he was, and that he believed society treated women “with great injustice.”
Langley was booed by fellow delegates, including one of the few conservative white Democrats to win the election, JN Cypert of White County. Cypert ridiculed Langley’s motion as threatening “revolutions in families.” The motion was quickly tabled, leaving Langley to complain that “the Democrats are my enemies because I helped emancipate the slaves.” Republicans have now become my adversaries, because I made an effort to give women their rights. And even women. themselves do not sympathize with me. “
The end of Reconstruction in 1874 resulted in the adoption of a new constitution, which, while conservative and responsive in many ways, adopted a provision by Justice James W. Butler granting women the right to own property independently. of a husband.
The next session of the legislature passed a law for the protection of married women, which allowed women to buy and sell property, sue and be sued, and be held accountable for the debt of a husband. Arkansas was one of the first states to grant extended rights to married women, but the right to vote was not one of them.
One of the interesting points to note when studying the history of women’s rights in Arkansas is the striking role played by women and children born in the north to the Republican leaders of the reconstruction. The movement to empower women in Arkansas was a truly bipartisan effort, bringing together the formidable organizational talents of female Democrats like Mary W. Loughborough and Republicans like Clara McDiarmid and Ida Joe Brooks, all of Little Rock. (Ida Joe Brooks ran for state office in 1920, but was excluded from the ballot by a notice from the sitting state attorney general.)
The women’s suffrage movement was centered in Little Rock, but pockets of activity sometimes arose in smaller towns such as Forrest City, Eureka Springs, Hope and Stuttgart. The suffrage movement gained momentum as it found common cause with the Women’s Temperance Campaign. In 1890, the Arkansas Prohibition Party convention in Russellville approved the emancipation of women. This alliance caused the alcohol forces to oppose women’s suffrage, which was ultimately wise.
In the legislative session of 1911, women’s suffrage could no longer be neglected, and the House of Representatives witnessed a strongly argued debate on a motion to grant the vote to women. Ultimately, the motion was tabled, but the debate had evolved to the point that respected Democratic lawmakers such as George P. Whittington of Hot Springs had joined the movement. Many Republican state leaders, like staunch Wallace Townsend, were strongly in favor of extending suffrage to women.
Clouds of war drifted across Europe when the Arkansas legislature convened in 1917, possibly adding to the suffragist cause. The suffragists also strengthened their cause by adopting a new strategy in 1917. Realizing that almost all major elections in the South were decided in the Democratic Party primaries, the suffragists convinced Garland County Representative John A. Riggs to sponsor a bill that would open the primary to female voters.
Women across the state mobilized for the 1917 effort. Women lobbied in many ways, âbut the legislature was not harassed by a large and visible lobby. The bill passed the House by a comfortable 71 to 19 votes. The Senate, however, was a different story.
On February 27, 1917, the Senate met in front of crowded galleries to consider the suffrage bill. After a heated debate in which Senator Walker Smith of Magnolia said women did not want the right to vote, the Senate passed the bill by two votes, 17 to 15.
At least 40,000 women voted in the Arkansas Democratic primary in 1918. Both political parties began electing women to party positions. Ms. Stella Brizzolara of Fort Smith was the first woman to serve on the Democratic State Committee. In 1920, the Arkansans passed a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote in all elections, although the issue had been the subject of legal proceedings for several years.
Tom Dillard is a retired historian and archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]