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March 18th, 2014
Bartee Haile: Texas women fought long and hard for the vote

COVER: Women in Travis County register to vote for the first time in 1918, the year Gov. William P. Hobby Sr. signed a bill allowing women to vote in party primaries. More than 386,000 women registered in the 17 days. TEXAS STATE LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES COMMISSION PHOTO

This Week in Texas History: A column

On Mar. 25, 1918, in a special ceremony at the state capitol, Gov. William P. Hobby signed into law the Primary Election Law giving the women of Texas at long last the right to vote.

On hand for the momentous occasion were standard bearers Jane Y. McCallum and Minnie Fisher Cunningham. Often down but never out, the resolute crusaders refused to give up the fight for the female franchise.

From start to finish, the battle over the ballot in the Lone Star State took half a century. At the Reconstruction convention that rewrote the state constitution, the Radical wing of the Republican Party came out for universal suffrage. But the daring idea of extending democracy not only to emancipated male slaves but to adults of all races was far ahead of its time.

Rejected in 1869 by a margin about the size of the Grand Canyon, the same suggestion suffered an identical fate six years later. Women were barred from the polls along with “children, idiots, lunatics, paupers and felony convicts.”

Though badly wounded, the controversial issue would not roll over and die. During the final decades of the 1800’s, the cause was kept alive by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which agitated for opening up the electoral process in addition to shutting down the saloons.

When the three Finnigan sisters founded the Houston-based Equal Suffrage League in 1903, the movement seemed to shift into high gear. But this temporary upsurge ran out of steam, and soon the only functional women’s rights group left in the State of Texas was in Austin.

Among the handful of capital activists was Jane Y. McCallum, wife of the local school superintendent. A gifted veteran of earlier skirmishes over prohibition, education reform and child labor laws, she focused her boundless energy on winning the vote for women.

Scorn was a common tactic of the opposition, but McCallum managed to hold her own in those barbed exchanges. To a state senator who once told the suffragist to go home and raise a family, she coolly retorted, “I have five children. How many would you suggest I have?”

With a zealous commitment that compensated for a lack of numbers, the so-called “petticoat lobby” put their demand on the legislative calendar in 1911, 1913 and again in 1915. They were just three votes shy on their final try, and the scent of victory spurred the growth of the Texas Equal Suffrage Association, an umbrella organization which quickly established chapters in 24 towns.

By 1915 American women exercised limited voting rights in a dozen states, all but one west of the Mississippi. In the allegedly enlightened East, the fairer sex was no better off than in Texas, while in congress, where the proposition had popped up in every session since 1880, progress was hard to come by.

Meanwhile, the Lone Star ladies under the guidance of Cunningham and McCallum played a pivotal part in the coalition that brought down Gov. Ferguson. After the impeachment of Farmer Jim, an avowed adversary, the suffragists pinned their hopes on his soft-spoken successor.

Tireless support for the war effort throughout 1917 won widespread respect as well as many new converts, and the next year the Texas Equal Suffrage League mobilized for an all-out drive. The outcome was a carefully crafted compromise that permitted women to participate in the primary elections of the party of their choice.

When Gov. Hobby signed his name on the historic bill, only 17 days remained until the primaries. A whirlwind registration campaign put 360,000 Texas women on the rolls, a fantastic feat which refuted the tired old axiom that southern belles did not want to bother their pretty heads with politics.

In 1919 legislators drafted for the approval of the male electorate an amendment to the state constitution granting their better halves an unrestricted franchise. Despite the distribution of three million leaflets and the endorsement of every daily newspaper save one, the proposal lost by 25,000 votes.

Eleven days later, however, the U.S. Congress passed and promptly forwarded to the respective states the Nineteenth Amendment. In a special session in the summer of 1919, both Lone Star houses signed off on the abolition of sex discrimination at the polls. Texas became the ninth state in the nation and the first in the South to go on record for ratification.

In her jubilant reaction to the long-awaited news, Jane McCallum expressed the silent sentiment of most members of her gender. “With high hopes and enthusiasm,” she wrote, “women stepped forth into a world in which they were citizens at last.”

Syndicated columnist BARTEE HAILE has written about Texas history for the San Marcos Mercury since 2011. Haile welcomes your comments or questions by mail at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here

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