Rob Christensen

How North Carolina failed its #MeToo moment – 100 years ago

Women campaigning for the vote in Charlotte early in the 20th century.
Women campaigning for the vote in Charlotte early in the 20th century. File photo

The #MeToo movement of a century ago did not have a hashtag and did not involve sexual harassment in its narrowest sense.

But it did involve women’s fight for dignity and equality. And it faced considerable opposition from men who found the idea of women involved in politics ludicrous, threatening, socialistic or against God’s plan.

One hundred years ago, voting in North Carolina was largely reserved for white men. Most black voters had been disenfranchised by literacy tests, and women were not permitted to vote or hold elective office, no matter how literate or educated. A woman who was a physician could not vote. A female school teacher could not vote. A mother who taught her sons how to read and write and think could not vote, even though her sons could.

This is what passed as plain old common sense in my grandparents’ time.

Congress in January 1918 revived the Susan B. Anthony constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, and with the backing of President Woodrow Wilson, the measure passed both houses. But it had to be ratified by three-quarters of the states before it could become part of the Constitution.

North Carolina’s political leadership – all Democrats in the one-party South – were opposed. Both Tar Heel U.S. senators, Lee Overman and Furnifold Simmons, voted against giving women the vote, as did all but one of the House members. Gov. Thomas Bickett was also opposed.

The women’s vote had become a racial wedge issue, Leonard Rogoff writes in his new, award-winning book on a Goldsboro social reformer and suffragette, ‘Gertrude Weil, Jewish Progressive in the New South.’

Democratic leaders worried that if the vote were extended to women it would include black women and would “lead to socialism, trample on states’ rights, and return the state to black rule,” Rogoff writes.

There were progressive voices in North Carolina pushing to extend the franchise to women. The state Senate in 1918 passed a bill to allow women to vote in municipal elections, but it was killed in the state House.

In 1919, the legislature once again considered allowing women to vote in municipal elections. Hallet Ward, a state senator and later a congressman, declared that women’s suffrage “had no place in the sunny South” and that with women in the legislature, “one box of mice” could break up the General Assembly, Rogoff writes.

State Sen. A.M. Scales of Greensboro responded by citing the biblical Deborah and Joan of Arc. The measure passed the Senate, but it was rejected by the House, whose session began with the “singing of old time Camp Meeting tunes.”

For the women’s suffrage amendment to become law of the land, it had to be approved by 36 states.

The amendment had the backing of Josephus Daniels, the publisher of The News and Observer and secretary of the Navy, and Lt. Gov. O. Max Gardner, the insurgent candidate for governor in 1920. William Jennings Bryan, the former Democratic presidential candidate, was brought to Raleigh to speak for the amendment. More than 8,000 North Carolina college and high school students signed a petition of support.

The suffrage amendment became an issue in the 1920 Democratic primary for governor when supporters of Cameron Morrison, the machine-backed candidate, distributed handbills – early versions of negative TV ads – showing his opponent, Gardner, locking arms with a black woman because he supported the suffrage amendment.

Morrison compared women’s suffrage to socialism, warned of the return of black rule, and called on all white women to stand together. Playing the race card on the suffrage movement helped Morrison defeat Gardner in the 1920 Democratic primary.

By the spring of 1920, 35 states had ratified the suffrage amendment and national attention was focused on North Carolina, Tennessee or Vermont as the likely final state to ratify.

The state Republican Party endorsed the amendment in 1918 and the state Democratic Executive Committee endorsed the amendment in 1920, despite opposition from its leadership.

But the amendment was opposed by planters, industrialists, railroad executives, political bosses and liquor advocates who feared women voters would bring Prohibition, an end to child labor, wage and hour laws, and health and safety regulations that would hurt their finances and upset social hierarchies, Rogoff writes.

“A vote for Federal Suffrage Is a Vote for Organized Female Nagging Forever,” said one anti-suffrage league broadside.

Pro-suffrage supporters attempted to play down the race issue by noting that California allowed women to vote, but still excluded Japanese from voting.

In August, the North Carolina and Tennessee legislatures considered the women’s suffrage amendment at the same time. A group of 63 North Carolina House members sent a telegram to the Tennessee lawmakers saying they planned to vote against the amendment and urging the Tennessee legislature to do the same.

The North Carolina Senate voted 25-23 to postpone a suffrage vote until the next session. But the Tennessee legislature made the issue moot by becoming the decisive state to ratify the 19th amendment, making women across the country eligible to vote in the November 1920 elections.

The suffrage fight is another example of North Carolina’s deep social conservatism, which has been seen on a broad range of issues over the years including Prohibition, the Equal Rights Amendment, the literacy test for voting, skepticism about a state lottery, the reluctance to legalize the sale of mixed alcoholic drinks, abortion policy and support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.

But never fear. North Carolina eventually ratified the woman’s suffrage amendment – in May 1971. North Carolina was a half century late in saying #MeToo.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, @oldpolhack


“The Intimidation Game: How The Left Is Silencing Free Speech” by Kimberley Strassel, will be discussed at the Bridging the Divide monthly book club meeting to be held Wednesday March 7 at 7 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books. Moderating will be Kory Swanson, president of the John Locke Foundation. Rob Christensen will participate. All are welcome.