Asheville Archives: The city’s mixed response to the women’s suffrage movement, 1894

FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHT: "The woman’s rights movement that has just taken on tangible shape in Asheville has set the people to talking," the Asheville Daily Citizen reported on Nov. 22, 1894. Photo courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina

In last week’s Asheville Archives, we looked at the 1894 formation of the state’s first women’s suffrage committee (later named the North Carolina Equal Suffrage Association). The group was led by Asheville resident and committee President Helen Morris Lewis. This week’s piece examines the community’s mixed response to the committee’s creation.

On both a national and local level, race and racism influenced perceptions of the women’s suffrage movement, which launched in 1848. Many Southern whites, both male and female, opposed the movement for fear that it would further empower African Americans. In Asheville, this resentment presented itself in a Nov. 21, 1894, letter to the editor, written the day after the local women’s suffrage committee was formed. The Hendersonville resident, who signed the letter with her initials M.B.R. declared, “as long as the negro women must be included in our franchise it cannot be desirable for the South.”

In addition to racism, sexism factored largely into the opposition. On Nov. 22, the Asheville Daily Citizen ran excerpts written by the Rev. Millard A. Jenkins. (According to the article, the piece was originally published in an unnamed paper produced by the religious leader.) In it, the preacher bemoaned the state of North Carolina at the time, writing:

“There have been isms and schisms, and this and that; and now comes woman’s rights, waving her banners and claiming her liberties and freedom. And some men are stupid enough to receive the old toothless crone, as though she were a fair maiden.”

Jenkins went on to assert that God made women to serve men. In granting women the right to vote, the preacher believed, man “would reverse the order of business adopted by the God of heaven.” Women, Jenkins continued, belonged in the home. Had women been more diligent in their domestic duties, he declared, they “would have sealed eternally the barroom’s doom.”

In a joint response published in the Asheville Daily Citizen on Nov. 26, 1894, Lewis and her colleague Floride Cunningham denounced Jenkins’ column. “It is narrow, prejudiced and personal, and the expressed views are shallow and effete,” they wrote. “Such men as the writer have no real influence in an age like this, and are relegated to oblivion.”

Other residents took issue with Jenkins’ letter as well, though some for reasons unrelated to the suffrage movement. “Why should the title ‘toothless crone’ be intended to typify all that is vicious and contemptible?” one letter writer protested in the Nov. 28, 1894, issue of the Asheville Daily Citizen. “What a melancholy reflection that a reverend gentleman can be so blinded by the seductiveness of ‘fair maidens’ that … he can find nothing to eulogize in ‘toothless crones,’ though they often possess the virtues of the elect.” The letter writer signed the piece “A Toothless Crone.”

Meanwhile, letter writer “A Lord of Creation,” offered praise for the local committee in a Nov. 23, 1894, letter to the editor. Countering Jenkins’ bleak, parochial outlook, the anonymous writer proclaimed:

“All hail to this new movement known as woman’s suffrage! Sound the gong from Snowbird creek to the eastern jumping off place, and let the world know that the women of North Carolina are not asleep. Let the tidings sweep like a monstrous wave from sandhill to mountain top, and let woman, the mistress of all she surveys know that her days of thralldom are not many now. Happy is it that this great movement should have its inception in our beautiful city, truly the heart of the world. … Get up a torchlight procession and begin the campaign, and let the battlecry be ‘Skirts at the polls!’ To arms! To arms! And sweep aside those puny ones who would essay to stem the mighty tide!”

Despite Lewis’ efforts, the 19th Amendment, which grants women the right to vote, was not ratified until Aug. 18, 1920. For a majority of African American women, however, the same tactics used to deny African American men the right to vote were implemented to deny them their right as well  — including poll taxes, literacy tests and other discriminatory practices. (See “Asheville Archives: ‘White Supremacy made permanent,’ 1900,” Feb. 6, 2018, Xpress.)  It took another 45 years before the Voting Rights Act was signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965, seeking to overcome the legal barriers that previously prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote.

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents. 

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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