The Second Battle for Woman Suffrage: Alabama White Women, the Poll Tax, and V. O. Key's Master Narrative of Southern Politics

Article excerpt

IN 1937 MINNIE L. STECKEL, A SOCIOLOGIST AT THE ALL-WHITE ALABAMA COLLEGE for women in Montevallo, made the following observations: "A consideration of how [poll tax] laws affect women indicates that in many circumstances they do result in limiting women, more than men, in meeting voting qualifications.... [E]specially during the depression, $1.50 poll tax paid for the husband to vote and also for the wife often meant just that much less food and clothing for the family. If such a family is mindful of the need for voting, in most cases the poll tax will be paid for the man, but not for the woman." Fourteen years later, Katharine Cater, the dean of women at Auburn, wrote: "Why have women not taken better advantage of the vote for which they worked so diligently? There are a number of possible reasons, but one of the most obvious is the poll tax. The Alabama poll tax very clearly discriminates against women between the ages of 21 and 45. Veterans of World War I and World War II are exempt from paying the tax. This includes many men. But it leaves most women with a tax to pay, one of the worst features of which is the fact that it is cumulative." By 1958 Frederic D. Ogden, a University of Alabama political scientist who spent years studying the poll tax, reached the same conclusions. The poll tax, he wrote, "tends to bear more harshly on women than men and analysis of the results of ... reduction of the cumulative feature in Alabama disclosed that more white women had been prevented from voting by the tax than either white men or Negroes." (1)

Even though these observations make clear that earlier generations of scholars and women's activists identified forces that suppressed the white female vote in the South after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the post-1920 disfranchisement of large numbers of southern white women has gone largely unnoticed and unexplained by recent historians and political scientists. (2) Scholarly discussions of the poll tax and the anti-poll tax campaigns have generally been placed within the context of the civil fights movement, where the focus is on race and/or class discrimination, not gender. (3) Why is it that we are aware of the ongoing struggle black women and men waged through the NAACP and other organizations to challenge black disfranchisement but know so little about the continuing fight for woman suffrage waged by the white women who campaigned to abolish the poll tax and reform election laws in order to make the Nineteenth Amendment a reality? The failure of scholars to address white female disfranchisement seems deserving of an explanation in and of itself.

This essay examines how a growing understanding of the suppressive effects of the poll tax on southern white women voters inspired the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee to pursue an anti-poll tax agenda at the national level and moved white women in Alabama to launch a state anti-poll tax campaign. These women's political activism was part of the continuing movement to enfranchise women, and their efforts were opposed by white male Democratic leaders. Yet the women's campaigns were also conducted in the midst of the in-depth studies of black disfranchisement and southern political systems that yielded such classic works as Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy and V. O. Key's Southern Politics in State and Nation. (4) These researchers, however, neglected issues concerning women and politics as they gathered data and feverishly wrote chapter drafts to meet impending deadlines. An examination of their methods illuminates the process that has maintained our ignorance of the history of women's political cultures. (5) What we have then are two stories: the first concerns the reality of white female disfranchisement in the South in the post-suffrage decades and women's relentless efforts to combat it at the state and national level; the second centers on the failure of political scientists to study the problem. …