Welcome to Think, Texas a weekly column about Texas history.
On Aug. 26, 1920, American women won the legal right to vote.
Mary Herr Tally is not waiting until Aug. 26, 2020, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the day that Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified that three-quarters of the states had ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Tally, an Austin nonprofit leader, has put together a savvy website, ATX Celebrates Women’s Suffrage, that not only emphasizes the role of Texan suffragists but also the key roles played by people of color, LGBTQ people and male allies in the decades-long campaign for this essential right.
At the same time, Tally and her digital team have not ignored the fissures among the suffragists, nor the anti-suffrage movement, nor the incomplete project of securing voting rights for everyone today.
Although the organized fight for women’s equality in this country began as early as 1848, it was not until May 21, 1919, that the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, named after the prominent suffragist. Two weeks later, the U.S. Senate followed suit.
According to a handy timeline available through Tally’s website, Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the amendment on June 10, 1919. Ninth among the states, Texas joined the parade on June 28, 1919. It was the first to do so in the South.
Tennessee cast the final vote needed to ratify the 19th Amendment on Aug. 18, 1920.
It still took some states decades to climb on board. Delaware was the first to reverse its original "no" vote in 1923. Virginia and Alabama waited until the 1950s; Florida and South Carolina followed in the 1960s; Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina came around in the 1970s.
Mississippi was dead last among the original 1919 states — 48th — to ratify the 19th Amendment on March 22, 1984.
A project for 2020
The idea for the website evolved earlier this year from conversations among women leaders who were disappointed that Austin had so few public plans to honor the anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
"I called around town for weeks thinking surely I would uncover a festival or art exhibit or film series — nothing," Tally says. "And the Bullock Texas State History Museum’s suffrage exhibition was scheduled to end June 1, more than two months before the anniversary."
The Bullock later extended its exhibit, "Sister Suffragists," until Aug. 30. The museum, however, is still closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"So thinking of Abigail Adams’ letter to her husband, John Adams, to ‘remember the ladies’ while he and the Founding Fathers were drafting the Declaration of Independence," Tally says, "Austin forgot to ‘remember the ladies,’ too."
Along the way, Tally discovered things about Texas history as well as her own family.
"I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the women and just marvel at their bravery and their brilliance," Tally says, "like Texas’ own suffragist Minnie Fisher Cunningham, who was so politically shrewd the way she helped spearhead statewide momentum to impeach the unethical, anti-suffrage Gov. James Ferguson."
Pressure to impeach Ferguson, whose wife later twice served in his stead, came from a broad cross-section of Texans, it should be noted. (The book to consult here is "Impeached: The Removal of Texas Governor James E. Ferguson" edited by Jessica Brannon-Wranosky and Bruce A. Glasrud.)
"And then Cunningham lobbied new Gov. William Hobby and the Texas Legislature to ratify the 19th Amendment. Quite a remarkable feat as Texas was the first state in the very traditional South to do so.
"She moved to Washington, D.C., to lobby President Wilson — quite impressive for a farm girl from New Waverly," Tally says, "Then after she won over the president, she went on to travel across the U.S. to lobby other states to ratify the amendment. To me, Cunningham embodies the best of Texas women — intelligent, caring and empowered."
Austin’s own Jane Yelvington McCallum, whose house is preserved in the Heritage neighborhood not far from Central Market, was the other main suffrage leader in Texas. McCallum High School is named for her husband, Arthur, longtime Austin school district supervisor.
"She focused on publicity and generating statewide press and speechwriting," Tally says. "She also had a suffrage column in the Statesman and other newspapers. She took over the campaign in Texas while Cunningham was in D.C. lobbying and traveling across the U.S. to get other states to ratify the amendment. McCallum later went on to be the longest-serving Texas secretary of state. Minnie and Jane’s brilliance and passion is so infectious that 100 years later I imagine myself in the middle of the suffrage movement."
Breaking it down
Tally’s website is broken down by subject. I was first attracted to "The Texas Suffrage Movement," where I learned that the earliest organized efforts here began in 1893 when Rebecca Henry Hayes founded the Texas Equal Rights Association to "advance the industrial, educational and equal rights of women, and to secure their right to vote by appropriate state and national legislations." I also skipped to "Texas Suffragists," yet, to date, only Minnie Fisher Cunningham and Jane McCallum have earned a substantial biography. (The website is in progress.)
The LGBTQ community is represented in sections about "Suffragists and Boston Marriage" and "The Queer History of the Suffrage Movement." Several sections address race: "Black Women & the Suffrage Movement," "How Racism Almost Killed Women’s Right to Vote," "Systemic Racism," "The Root: How Racism Tainted Women’s Suffrage" and "Ain’t I a Woman?" That last section consists of a rousing, plainspoken speech delivered by Sojourner Truth at the Women’s Convention in 1851 in Akron, Ohio.
One could spend hours on the site.
In her personal life, Tally has discovered a memoir written by a great aunt who was a suffragist in Chicago as well as another great aunt who voted in California state elections as early as 1912, eight years before the 19th Amendment was ratified.
"This reveals to me that my great aunts were independent thinkers, self-aware and truly valued their civil rights," Tally says. "Honoring the suffragists is a perfect opportunity to remind all women — everyone — that voting is indeed our superpower. The suffragists knew this and demanded it for more than 70 years.
"You know, sometimes it takes a while for a woman to find her voice, and once she does, she uses it. Our vote is our voice, and we all must use it on Nov. 3."