As an independent republic and as a state in the United States, Texas granted women no voting rights. Men and women were partners in hardship and work but not in politics and government. Many people, including many women, thought that the status quo should not be disturbed. Custom and tradition held that government was the prerogative of men and hence outside of women's sphere. In the minds of many Texans, woman suffrage was more than a political issue and deemed a dangerous threat to the social order. In contrast, supporters of woman suffrage pointed out that women were citizens and taxpayers and, as such, should be entitled to a voice in the affairs of government. The formidable task of changing public opinion took decades over multiple generations.
The question of women’s voting rights was raised during the Texas Constitutional Convention of 1868–69 when Titus H. Mundine of Burleson County proposed that the franchise be conferred upon qualified persons without distinction of sex. The committee on state affairs approved this proposal, but the convention rejected it by a vote of fifty-two to thirteen. Shortly before the convention’s final vote on woman suffrage, Martha Goodwin Tunstall addressed a group of woman suffrage supporters in Austin in early 1869. News of her advocacy made its way to national suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and when the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) formed later that year, they listed Tunstall as the vice president representing Texas. A few years later, during the Constitutional Convention of 1875, two resolutions for the enfranchisement of women were introduced. Both were referred to the committee on suffrage, but neither was reported out of committee. Sarah Grimke Wattles Hiatt was one of the women to petition the 1875 convention for woman suffrage.
During the 1880s the majority of woman suffrage work was a mixture of grassroots activism and part of the efforts of the Texas Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Texas WCTU president and NWSA vice president Jenny Bland Beauchamp as well as Universalist minister and American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) correspondent Mariana Thompson Folsom travelled across Texas to spread the word about suffrage and women’s reform activities. Both women wrote newspaper articles during this period and reported to their respective national organizations of the work being done in Texas. Suffrage and temperance were often conjoined over the years, because so many supporters of one also participated in reform work for the other. African American club leader Eliza E. Peterson of Texarkana became the head of the state’s “Colored Division” of the Texas WCTU and national superintendent of the division in 1908. Newspapers reported that Peterson spoke in favor of woman suffrage and temperance publicly while touring in her national role.
Not until the NWSA and the AWSA combined to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) did activists establish a state suffrage association in Texas. A number of states and territories granted women the right to vote in the years surrounding NAWSA’s formation. As part of a push to further suffrage nationwide, NAWSA created a Southern Committee to focus especially on the South. After the chair of the committee, Kentuckian Laura Clay, contacted Galvestonian Rebecca Henry Hayes and NAWSA appointed her the new NAWSA vice president representing Texas, Hayes along with nine other women issued a call to organize in early 1893. The Texas Equal Rights Association (TERA) was formed at a convention in Dallas that May. The association soon had auxiliaries in a number of cities, and a bill to enfranchise women was introduced in the Texas House of Representatives in 1895 and was referred to the Constitutional Amendments Committee but did not advance. Dissension arose between Hayes and the executive committee, and at the state convention in Dallas in June 1895 she was not reelected to the presidency, which instead went to Elizabeth Good Houston. The association then entered a period of decline, and by 1898 NAWSA leaders reported at their annual meeting that no news was received from Texas.
In 1901 Houstonian Annette Finnigan and her father John were listed as contributors to the New York Suffrage League, headed by NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt, and by 1902 Annette Finnigan was serving on the executive committee of the national association. Then, in cooperation with NAWSA leaders to further woman suffrage in Texas, Finnigan and her sisters, Elizabeth Finnigan and Katherine Finnigan Anderson, organized the Equal Suffrage League of Houston in February 1903. Through the efforts of the Houston suffragists a similar organization was established in Galveston. Delegates from the two leagues met in Houston in December 1903 and organized the Texas Woman Suffrage Association (TWSA) with Annette Finnigan as president. During Finnigan’s presidency, the TWSA attempted to organize leagues in several Texas cities but was unable to secure adequate local and national support.
Finnigan left Texas and returned to New York. Mariana Folsom lobbied state legislators in Austin on behalf of the cause. While in communication with her, in 1907 Jess A. Baker of Granbury introduced a joint resolution in the Texas House of Representatives for women’s enfranchisement. At a hearing on February 21, sculptor Elisabet Ney, state WCTU president Helen M. Stoddard, former TERA leader Mary Alice McFadin McAnulty, and several other women spoke on its behalf. While the Constitutional Amendments Committee recommended that the resolution not be adopted, the following year a woman suffrage club was formed in Austin. Among its founders were Mariana Folsom and her daughter, Erminia Thompson Folsom. In April 1908 suffragists from around the state worked together to plan a Texas tour for NAWSA president Anna Howard Shaw. Shaw was looking to stimulate additional interest in the cause and also for the next state woman suffrage leader for Texas; she found her candidate in San Antonio clubwoman and civic leader Mary Eleanor Brackenridge. After a few years of planning and organizing, in February 1912 Brackenridge established an Equal Franchise Society in San Antonio and was elected its president. The society held frequent meetings, sponsored public lectures, and distributed large quantities of literature.
As NAWSA worked on its plan to further suffrage organizing in Texas, six more states and territories passed full suffrage for women. Less than two months after California passed woman suffrage, in a December 1911 article in her family’s Spanish-language newspaper La Cronica, Jovita Idar asserted, “Working women [recognize] your rights, proudly raise your chins and face the fight. The time of your degradation has passed…. Much has been said and written against the feminist movement but despite the opposition, women in California can vote on a jury and hold public offices….” Idar and her brothers Clemente Idar and Eduardo Idar wrote articles in a number of Spanish-language newspapers that portrayed woman suffrage activities positively in Texas and nationally.
In 1911 Jess Baker of Granbury once again raised the suffrage question in the Texas House. His resolution to enfranchise women was referred to the Constitutional Amendments Committee, which recommended that it not pass. Two years later T. H. McGregor of Austin introduced a similar resolution in the Texas Senate. This resolution received a favorable committee report but was rejected by a vote of nineteen to eight.
In April 1913 more than 100 persons from seven Texas cities met in San Antonio and revived the Texas Woman Suffrage Association with Mary Eleanor Brackenridge as the state association’s president. Brackenridge held this office until April 1914, when she was succeeded by Annette Finnigan, who had returned to Texas.
In 1915 the opponents of women's enfranchisement organized the Texas Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (TAOWS). They distributed large amounts of literature but did little organizing throughout the state. The leaders of the antisuffragists were Pauline Kleiber Wells of Brownsville and TAOWS publicity director Ida M. Darden.
By the time of the 1915 legislative session, women's enfranchisement had become an active issue, and suffragists and anti-suffragists vigorously worked to sway legislators one way or the other. The suffragists did significant educational work through newspaper publicity and the distribution of literature. Prospects for winning concessions from the legislature seemed good. Finnigan and NAWSA organizer Perle Penfield led an active legislative lobbying campaign during the 1915 session in which the NAWSA practice of organizing suffrage work along state senatorial districts lines was implemented. Women throughout the state sent letters and petitions to the lawmakers. In the House the Constitutional Amendments Committee recommended that the suffrage resolution be adopted. When the House voted on the measure, ninety of its members voted in favor and thirty-two against. Since the ninety favorable votes were less than the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment, the resolution failed.
Recently-elected president of the Galveston Equal Suffrage Association, Minnie Fisher Cunningham, became instrumental to the efforts in Austin during the legislative session, and she became Finnigan’s handpicked successor as TWSA president. Cunningham was subsequently elected at that year’s state suffrage convention and re-elected every year after that for the remainder of the organization’s existence. Also during 1915 Finnigan started working with labor organizer and member of the Legislative Committee of the State Federation of Labor, Eva Goldsmith of Houston, to reach women workers in Texas—especially in Galveston, and Cunningham continued the relationship after she became state president. At the 1916 TWSA annual convention, under Cunningham’s guidance, the association’s delegates changed the name of their organization to the Texas Equal Suffrage Association (TESA).
During the next four years, suffragists in Texas continued to organize and lobby the public and officeholders for support. To publicize their cause they sponsored lectures and forums, conducted debates and essay contests, maintained booths at fairs and in department stores, marched in parades, made house-to-house canvasses, and sent letters and petitions to legislators and congressmen. They distributed thousands of pamphlets and kept newspapers supplied with suffrage news.
TESA was the state affiliate to NAWSA, just as the TWSA and TERA had been, and until 1916, each was the only state-level suffrage organization in Texas during its existence. In January 1916, however, the National Woman's party (NWP) established a branch in Texas. It began with a membership of more than 100 and with Clara Snell Wolfe of Austin as state president. Unlike the NAWSA, the National Woman's party engaged in activities such as picketing the White House and burning President Woodrow Wilson in effigy. The party's Texas branch announced its approval of this policy but sponsored no militant agitation in the state. Unlike at the national level, members of the Texas NWP were often also members of TESA. Catt and Cunningham decided early in the development of Texas NWP operations that it did not serve the movement best to make Texas suffragists pick sides. Even though the state’s NWP operations and membership were significantly smaller than that of TESA, a number of influential women supported the NWP at different points after it organized, including prominent San Antonio resident Rena Maverick Green and at one point even NAWSA Congressional committee member and TESA officer Elizabeth Herndon Potter.
When the Texas legislature convened in January 1917, resolutions to enfranchise women were introduced. Once again the House voted on the question. This time seventy-six representatives voted in favor and fifty-six against, but it failed to be adopted. The governor of Texas during the 1915 and 1917 legislative sessions was James E. Ferguson, an unwavering opponent of woman suffrage. When dissatisfaction with Ferguson's conduct in office led to a movement to impeach him, Texas suffragists organized the Woman's Campaign for Good Government to support the anti-Ferguson movement. During the summer of 1917 he was impeached and removed from office, and Lieutenant Governor William P. Hobby became governor.
Even though the impeachment ruling barred Ferguson from holding public office in Texas ever again, he still ran for re-election in 1918. Since Hobby was friendlier to suffrage than Ferguson, Cunningham approached the governor and other connected political leaders with a deal. If the male anti-Ferguson Texas Democratic party leaders and officeholders all promised to support the passage of a state law to grant Texas women the right to vote in political primary elections and nominating conventions, then Texas suffragists would use their well-oiled political organizing networks to campaign on behalf of Hobby for governor. Following the entry of the United States into World War I, suffragist organizations supported projects and activities on behalf of the war effort. Their endeavors were important in softening the opposition to enfranchisement. Further, the suffragists had been able political allies in the impeachment process the year before, and as such, the deal was made.
Primary suffrage did not require an amendment of the state constitution but could be granted by a simple legislative act. Hobby called a special session in March 1918, and Charles B. Metcalfe of San Angelo introduced a bill to permit women to vote in primaries. The only literacy test in Texas voting history was successfully inserted and passed as part of the primary woman suffrage law. Texas women did not have to pay their poll tax that year to vote in the primary; women in towns of more than 10,000 population had to register to vote. The primary woman suffrage law passed the House eighty-four to thirty-four and the Senate eighteen to four. Governor Hobby signed the law on March 26, 1918, and Cunningham was presented the gold pen as a gift.
By June 1918 there were ninety-eight woman suffrage organizations in Texas, according to TESA records. Many more suffragists existed in the state, though. El Paso National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) vice president and local civic and club leader Maude Sampson held a meeting in her home on June 12, 1918, to organize the “El Paso Negro Woman’s Civic and Enfranchisement League.” She then wrote to NAWSA executives that month and asked for information on how the club could join as an affiliate. Correspondence then went back and forth between TESA and NAWSA leaders, because NAWSA amended its constitution the year before to keep African American clubs from affiliation for fear that it would upset southern campaigning and members. The only way clubs could affiliate with NAWSA by this point was directly through their state's association, and from the beginning, Texas state woman suffrage associations were segregated. During the decades of suffrage work in Texas, some White suffragists were open proponents of limited forms of woman suffrage that by design had racially, ethnically, and economically restrictive effects on access to voting. On the other hand, there were also suffragists who actively worked against these types of voting restrictions that would limit some women’s access to enfranchisement.
The fact remained that TESA and its predecessor suffrage organizations were segregated, barring many women and men from participating in affiliated suffrage activities and from being recorded in their organizational records. Catt told Cunningham to discourage Sampson’s organization from joining TESA, which she did. The El Paso County chairman also refused to allow these African American women from serving as election clerks during the 1918 primary. Suffragist and later NAACP leader Christia Adair had a similar experience in Kingsville two years later when she and a group of African American women tried to register to vote in the upcoming 1920 primary. They were turned away.
Across the state, from June 26 to July 11, 1918, according to Cunningham’s report to NAWSA, an estimated “386,000 women registered” to vote in preparation for the upcoming Democratic primary on July 27, 1918. Hobby for governor, Annie Webb Blanton for state superintendent of public instruction, and other candidates from across the state who were favored by women were victorious. Since Texas was predominantly Democratic, primary suffrage was almost equivalent to full enfranchisement when electing officeholders. In August 1918 Democratic conventions in 233 counties went on record in favor of woman suffrage, and in September the state Democratic convention endorsed it. Women were now a force in state politics. Almost immediately, primary woman suffrage was questioned through a number of court cases; subsequently the Texas Supreme Court ruled in January 1920 in Koy v. Schneider that the law was, in fact, constitutional.
When the legislature convened in January 1919, Governor Hobby sent a message recommending that the Texas Constitution be amended to extend full suffrage to women. He also recommended that persons of foreign birth be allowed to vote only after they had acquired full citizenship through naturalization. If adopted, this citizenship requirement would take the vote away from "first paper" immigrants, a term used at the time for those individuals who had moved to the United States and begun the process of naturalization citizenship through filing the first round of paperwork. At the time, in Texas, men who had begun this process were fully enfranchised, and part of this proposed change to the state constitution sought to remove that right. Without a dissenting vote, both houses passed a resolution embodying the governor's recommendations. Before becoming part of the Texas Constitution, however, the resolution had to be approved by the voters at the polls in a referendum. The enfranchisement of women and the disfranchisement of immigrants who were going through the process of naturalization were both parts of the same resolution, and therefore, were bound together in the same law for voters to consider. Under existing law, women could not vote in the referendum on the proposed amendment since they could only vote in political primaries. Under the direction of Jane Y. McCallum of Austin, suffragists conducted a vigorous campaign. When the referendum was held on May 24, however, the proposed amendment was defeated by a majority of 25,000 votes. The antisuffragists hailed this defeat as a mandate against votes for women. The suffragists emphatically denied this claim.
The following month, June 1919, the federal woman suffrage amendment was submitted to the states. The Texas legislature convened in special session on June 23. The following day the House adopted a resolution ratifying the federal amendment by a vote of ninety-six to twenty-one. In spite of some opposition, the Senate approved it in a viva voce vote on the morning of June 28, 1919, and the ratification was certified later that day. Therefore, Texas became the ninth state in the United States and the first Southern state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which removed sex as a qualifier for voting. A few months later, in October 1919, the Texas Equal Suffrage Association was replaced by the League of Women Voters of Texas.
It took fourteen months for the required three-fourths amount of states to ratify the federal amendment and for it to become law. In August 1920 the thirty-sixth needed state, Tennessee, ratified. Eight days later on August 26, 1920, United States Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby declared the law in effect.
Not all women gained the right to vote after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Therefore, the work was not finished in August 1920 and persisted for decades. Women continued to be denied voting rights through means other than “on the basis of sex,” through threats of violence and intimidation, poll taxes, the White primary system, voter identification requirements, and other restrictive election laws and practices.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.