North Carolina Did Not Approve the 19th Amendment until 1971


In honor of Women’s History Month, I thought it would be interesting to take a deeper look at women’s fight for the right to vote in North Carolina. I thought I had a pretty solid picture of the suffrage movement in general. I attended a Women’s rights march in Seneca Falls, NY, the birthplace of the movement. Much to my surprise, the history of Women’s suffrage in North Carolina is a wild ride.


In 1897, the North Carolina chapter of the Equal Suffrage Association pressured local lawmakers to give women the right to vote, but most lawmakers were uninterested. State Senator J.L. Hyatt from Yancey County was the lone exception, introducing a bill to grant women the right to vote. The Senate immediately referred the bill to the Committee on Insane Asylums, where it was tabled and eventually died. They had made their feeling clear. 


Sixteen years later in 1913, Gertrude Weil of Goldsboro formed the North Carolina Equal Suffrage League aimed at developing local groups, lobbying legislators, and publishing materials to promote women’s suffrage. These groups submitted proposals for women’s suffrage to the state legislature in 1913, 1915, and 1919. All were rejected.


Those opposed to the Amendment based their arguments largely on their fears of what women’s suffrage might lead to. This “slippery slope” argument warned that giving women the right to vote would lead to women getting involved in politics, neglecting their husbands and homes. They also feared that giving women the right to vote would lead to “Negro” suffrage.


Despite renewed efforts from multiple groups, the 1915 North Carolina legislature also failed to support women’s suffrage. The States’ Rights and Defense League, a white men’s organization, insisted that women’s suffrage would destroy the family and endanger white supremacy. Owners of textile mills (a major industry in North Carolina), also opposed granting women the right to vote, fearing that women would be more likely to support legislation limiting child labor, a typical part of mill operations.


It is important that Black women not be ignored in the context of women’s suffrage. The women’s suffrage movement, especially in the South, was led by and for wealthy well-connected White women. Black women were a key part of the movement for women’s suffrage, but their right to vote was never part of the bargain. These women were excluded from organizations such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association for fear that their presence would alienate White supporters. When women did get the right to vote, Black women in the South were still barred from voting because of racist voting restrictions.


When Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment in 1919, at least 36 states needed to vote in favor of the change for it to become law. This process is called ratification. By this time, women’s suffrage was popular both nationwide and within North Carolina. When the 19th Amendment came to the North Carolina state legislature in August of 1920, it had already been ratified by 35 states. All eyes turned to North Carolina, which was expected to be the final state to ratify the Amendment.


North Carolina’s governor, Thomas W. Bickett, encouraged his legislature to accept the inevitable situation gracefully, but publicly hoped that Tenessee would ratify the Amendment first, taking the pressure off North Carolina. Before considering the amendment, 63 members of the North Carolina House of Representatives sent a message to the Tennessee Legislature promising that they would not ratify the Amendment, asking Tennessee not to ratify it either.

On August 17, 1920, the North Carolina State Senate voted to postpone their vote on women’s suffrage until the 1921 legislative session, effectively rejecting the Amendment. Tennessee ratified the Amendment the next day, becoming the 36th state to ratify the 19th amendment. As a result, women’s suffrage became the law of the land, even in North Carolina.


It was not until fifty years later (1971) that North Carolina ratified the 19th Amendment, symbolically acknowledging the importance of women's voting rights.