The Weight of Their Votes: Southern Women and Political Leverage in the 1920s

By Lorraine Gates Schuyler | Go to book overview

Introduction

Does voting really matter? From the time of the Revolution to recurring debates over re districting, Americans have fought for the right to vote. The Founding Fathers created a government by elected representatives to ensure that propertied white men were ruled by a government they could control. Since then, other Americans have fought to share in that power by securing the franchise for themselves. This book assesses the significance of those struggles by exploring the effects of woman suffrage in the repressive Jim Crow South.

Two long, fierce struggles illustrate the importance Americans have placed on the right to vote. In 1848, the pioneering women who gathered at Seneca Falls insisted that, like white men, they too were deserving of ballots. In the ensuing battle for woman suffrage, activists marched in the streets, picketed outside the White House, endured jail sentences, and staged hunger strikes to secure their full participation in the American polity. Their battle for suffrage rights lasted more than seventy years.

When the Civil War ended, newly freed slaves insisted that Emancipation would be meaningless if they did not have ballots with which to protect themselves. As black men exercised their voting rights for the first time in the wake of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, white southerners organized campaigns of violence and intimidation before resorting to “legal” disfranchisement statutes to ensure that the prized right of voting would remain the privilege of white men only. For nearly a century, African Americans continued to fight for full access to the polls. In the face of poll taxes, literacy tests, and violence that eviscerated black voting rights, black southerners staged Freedom Schools and public protests, faced beatings and hostile registrars, risked humiliation and even death to exercise their right to vote.

Voting rights have been vigorously—even violently—contested in the United States because they are so powerful. Since the earliest days of the republic, those Americans with suffrage rights have used their votes not only to elect representatives to office but also, and more importantly, to influence

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