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

By Lorraine Gates Schuyler | Go to book overview

Chapter One
Now You Smell Perfume
The Social Drama of Politics in the 1920s

WHAT WILL YOU BE? A Man or a Jelly Bean?”1 This is the question that antisuffragists posed to southern men on the eve of ratification. For years, and at an even more fevered pitch in the last months before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, antisuffragists made apocalyptic predictions of the doomsday that would arrive in the South if women received the vote. According to these “antis” the entire southern social order would collapse in the wake of woman suffrage, as it threatened to bring “Negro Domination” and the ruin of the white southern family. While the antis' most dramatic claims failed to materialize, the sudden influx of women into public politics transformed the social drama of politics and challenged the supremacy of white males in ways that many antisuffragists had predicted with dread,2 As white and black women embraced their new status as voters, the Nineteenth Amendment blurred the lines of gender and race that were so central to the order of the Jim Crow South.

IN THE YEARS immediately preceding the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, white southern men sat atop a political system exclusively within their control. The threats from Populists, Republicans, African Americans, and even poor whites had been answered with poll taxes, understanding clauses, literacy tests, violence, and other legal and extralegal means of disfranchising disruptive voters. Voter participation rates in the South were appallingly low, even by low national standards, and on election days politically active southern white men gathered at the polls to share in the male political rituals of smoking, spitting, brawling, coarse joke-telling drinking (despite laws to the contrary), and, not least, casting ballots, which symbolized their superiority to white women and children, all African Americans,

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