By Pamala Nolan
The foundation of the suffrage movement in Alabama emerged out of women’s clubs and their interest in social and economic problems facing women and children.
But without access to the ballot box, women were unable to enact meaningful reform or shape public policies. They began forming equal rights clubs in Alabama in the early 1890s.
Virginia Clay-Clopton was President of the Alabama Suffrage Association from 1896-1900. She gave the introductory remarks at a meeting in Huntsville when Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt visited Alabama in 1895.
Clay-Clopton later traveled to other suffrage conventions in the South urging Southern women to become involved.
Frances Griffin was an important early Alabama suffrage leader who served as President of the association from 1900-1904.
Griffin was a teacher, author, respected and entertaining lecturer, and a national organizer for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
In 1901, Griffin became the first woman to address Alabama legislators when she spoke at the Constitutional Convention in Montgomery on the topic of equal suffrage for women.
She created a sensation with her trademark wit and made news in papers across the country.
The suffrage movement came to a standstill in Alabama after the legislature failed to grant any recognition of women’s rights in the 1901 Alabama Constitution.
By 1910, a resurgence of interest in equal suffrage in Alabama was realized as fresh leadership emerged in the larger cities of the state.
The Alabama Equal Suffrage Association (AESA) was formed in Birmingham in 1912 with Pattie Ruffner Jacobs as President.
Jacobs traveled across the country promoting suffrage and attending National American Woman Suffrage Association’s (NAWSA) meetings. She became a national figure when she was elected to the NAWSA board as Second Auditor in 1916.
Julia “Bossie” O’Brien Hundley lobbied the state legislature as head of AESA’s legislative committee. Hundley and other suffragists motored across Alabama giving speeches and gathering signatures. They collected over 10,000 in their petition which the legislators promptly ignored.
AESA’s motto was “We mean to make Alabama lead the South for woman suffrage.” In 1915, much national attention was on the Alabama state legislature as they convened in Montgomery because it appeared they might pass an amendment favorable to women’s suffrage.
Unfortunately, when the issue came up for a vote in the summer of 1915, key Alabama legislators reneged on their support and the measure failed.
They had been highly influenced by anti-suffragists who lobbied against the franchise as earnestly as their opponents did for it.
Another opportunity would not arise until 1919 when the legislature met again. Consequently, AESA resolved to work with NAWSA on a federal amendment.
Many black women in Alabama supported suffrage through their women’s clubs, doing so with the added burden of racism.
When conventions were held in the South, white suffragists maintained the segregation rules imposed in the cities they were held in and discouraged black women from attending.
Despite this, Adella Hunt Logan, an instructor at Tuskegee Institute, attended NAWSA conferences, wrote articles in favor of suffrage and organized marches.
She wrote Susan B. Anthony, “…someday I hope to see my daughter vote right here in the South.”
Margaret Murray Washington, third wife of Booker T. Washington, and Dean of Women at Tuskegee Institute, was active in many women’s clubs.
She sought to change people’s lives through suffrage, education, and self-improvement. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Women.
The Butler County courthouse was the site of two suffragist meetings in 1914. In April Julia Oates Randall Bonelli, a New York leader, spoke to over fifty people.
Pattie Jacobs Ruffner’s talk in December was reported favorably in several papers.
Alabama rejected the nineteenth amendment when legislators voted during a special session in September 1919. It would not be ratified in Alabama until September 1953.
Pattie Ruffner Jacobs put it best after Alabama’s rejection, “It only remains for the outward and visible sign of our freedom to be put in the hands of the Southern women by the generous men of other states, a situation which hurts our pride and to which we submit with deep regret but not apology.”
The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association is building a memorial at the Occoquan Workhouse where suffragists were imprisoned and tortured for exercising their constitutional right to protest. Please see https://suffragistmemorial.org/.