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

By Lorraine Gates Schuyler | Go to book overview

Conclusion

When I began this project, some skeptics warned that I would be lucky to find enough evidence of southern women's political activism to fill an article, let alone a book. Indeed, the consensus among historians suggested that the empowering effects of the Nineteenth Amendment had been attenuated and short-lived. Yet in every archive, in every southern town, and in seemingly every women's club yearbook, southern women left evidence of their persistent and remarkably successful efforts to take advantage of their new ballots. From the movable registration booth that Atlanta's white women founded in a NuGrape truck to Gertrude Weil's destruction of marked ballots in North Carolina, and Elizabeth Little's campaign to register African American voters in Birmingham to the election of an all-female government in Winslow, Arkansas, the vigorous participation of women in the region's formal politics defies the notion that southern political life remained unchanged by woman suffrage

To be sure, southern politics in the 1920s was democratic in name only. Political elites used legal and extralegal methods to prevent most southerners from voting and the tight control of politics by a few elites alienated many of those citizens who were able to cast ballots. Yet in that decade, southern women not only voted but joined interest groups and lobbied their legislators as constituents. The remarkable ability of southern white women, and occasionally even southern black women, to seize political power and policy concessions from this closed system has long been obscured by our focus on the failure of national women's organizations to obtain all of the federal legislation that they demanded. This book is an attempt to recover that colorful and influential participation of southern women in local politics, and it suggests that scholars interested in the role of enfranchised women in politics focus their attention where politically active women did— at the state and local levels.

By the 1920s, a devotion to white supremacy and disfranchisement among the region's political leaders had helped give rise to a distinctive, some might say stunted, civic culture in the South. African Americans were systemati-

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