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An early poster endorsing voting rights for women.
Photo courtesy North Carolina Museum of History

Originally published: 2012-10-24 16:26:36
Last modified: 2012-10-24 16:26:36

Our Avery County: Votes for (Avery County) women

Michael Hardy / (

In the interest of complete transparency in this election season, this article is based upon one simple sentence found in the Oct. 19, 1918, edition of Charlotte Observer. That sentence reads: “Sixty women, in Avery County, in the heart of the mountains of North Carolina, met together some months ago and sent resolutions to Senator Overman, urging the passage of the amendment.”
The amendment to which the article refers to was the Suffrage amendment, giving the women the right to vote.
Suffrage was not a new topic when the 60 ladies from Avery County petitioned the elected leadership of North Carolina. In winter 1894, the first suffrage association was formed in North Carolina. The Equal Suffrage Association was created in Buncombe County, with Helen Lewis as president. While Lewis toured some of the Western North Carolina counties, it is unclear how close she came to present-day Avery County. Just three years later, Senator J. L. Hyatt, a Republican from Yancey County, introduced a bill in the General Assembly to give women the right to vote. The bill was sent to the committee on insane asylums, where it eventually died.
For 15 years, the suffrage movement in North Carolina languished. In 1913, another association was formed in Morganton, followed by another in Greenville. By the end of 1914, there were 16 towns in North Carolina that had associations. Several newspapers, along with Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court Walter Clark, supported the measure.
Debate across the state was heated (as it was across the nation, for that matter). Winston-Salem Journal argued in January 1913, “Let’s pass up woman suffrage and the initiative and referendum and such things and get busy on the education reform.” A month later, Charlotte Observer argued that the “quiet, conservative people of North Carolina do not stop to consider the women suffrage movement in this country seriously.”
Different bills were introduced into the General Assembly to give women the right to vote. These bills, one to permit women to vote in municipal elections and one allowing them to vote in the presidential election, were defeated in 1917.
Most consider World War I as a turning point in the suffrage movement. As men left to join the army and fight, women took their places in different business and industries. In the eyes of many, they earned the respect of their male counterparts.
In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson changed his previous position on suffrage and supported a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. New legislation was introduced into Congress (a similar act had been defeated in 1915), and on May 21, 1919, the House of Representative passed the amendment, followed by the Senate two weeks later. The new amendment to the United States Constitution then went to the states for ratification.
Many were hopeful that the General Assembly of North Carolina would cast the final vote for ratification. According to the Constitution, an amendment needed three-fourths of the states to agree before the amendment became official. North Carolina Governor Cameron Morrison was quoted in Raleigh’s News and Observer as saying, “I am profoundly convinced that it would be part of wisdom and grace for North Carolina to accept the inevitable and ratify the amendment.”
However, it was not meant to be. On Aug. 17, 1920, a motion was passed by the state senate postponing the ratification vote until the next legislative session. Two days later, the state house openly rejected ratification. North Carolina’s actions were all in vain, for on Aug. 21, 1920, the state of Tennessee claimed the honor of becoming the final state needed to ratify the constitutional amendment.
Technically, because the North Carolina Senate tabled the motion, ratification was not rejected. However, the state did not “get around” to ratifying the 19th Amendment until 1971. The only state to wait longer was Mississippi, which ratified the amendment in 1984.
So what became of the appeal of the 60 Avery County ladies? Not much. When the vote was taken in the United States Senate in 1919, Sen. Overman joined with 17 other Democrats and voted against the passage of the 19th Amendment.
As citizens in Avery County and across the country take to the polls in a few weeks, it is revealing to realize how recently such a large percentage of the population was not permitted to vote. Even with all the tension and complexity of our current elections, at least Avery County women no longer have to worry that they will be denied the opportunity to have their voices – and their votes – heard.