By STEFAN MODRICH
Ensuring all eligible American citizens had the right to vote was a long struggle. Coalitions of men and women of many different racial and ethnic backgrounds formed to fight for what has long been considered to be among the most important democratic and civic obligations any American citizen can perform.
As it has been in so many ways throughout its history, Texas was at the forefront of the women’s suffrage movement in a key respect — it was the first southern state to ratify the 19th Amendment and the ninth overall when it did so on June 29, 1919.
In Fort Bend County, the first woman to register to vote was Bessie Urana of Guy, 16 miles south of Rosenberg in 1919. She was a 36-year-old mother of eight children.
But it wasn’t until Aug. 18, 1920, nearly 100 years and two months ago, that Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, the last one needed to adopt it into the U.S. Constitution. The 19th Amendment does not allow states or the federal government to deny citizens the right to vote on the basis of sex.
Dr. Jessica Brannon-Wranosky, a professor of digital humanities and history at Texas A&M University-Commerce and the project director for the Handbook of Texas Women, said the often-repeated and commonly-taught story of the convention of suffragists in Seneca Falls, N.Y., while prominent in the historical narrative, is not the true starting point for the movement in the U.S.
Several of the original 13 colonies that became the U.S. allowed women to vote in 1776. But in 1807, every state constitution prohibited women’s suffrage.
She said New Jersey allowed women to vote in the country’s first presidential election in 1788 and Kentucky provided “very limited” voting rights to a small group of women in 1837.
“It was very specific of the size of the urban area it had to be, and they had to be property owners,” Brannon-Wranosky said. “They had to be heads of households and to meet other certain requirements.”
And at the time, there was no federal law addressing the definition of a voter — the idea of “one person, one vote” did not gather momentum in the legal system until the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, so voter participation in Texas was limited to white male landowners until 1919.
In Rosenberg, a chapter of the Texas Woman Suffrage Association opened in 1918.
Ann Graham McEachin was listed as chairwoman of the group in 1919, and her husband was a lawyer in Fort Bend County.
Henrietta Katherine “Etta Mae” Moore Little was listed as one of the contacts for the group as early as 1914, according to Brannon-Wranosky. Ettta Mae was born in 1894 and died in 1975, the same year U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan introduced the Voting Rights Act extension that mandated Spanish-language voting materials and banned any polling practice that had a discriminatory effect, regardless of intent.
Etta Mae’s father was John Moore, a former Congressman who represented District 8 from 1905-13.
One thing Brannon-Wrankosky said she found in her suffrage research was that often it was the daughters and wives of members of Congress getting involved in suffrage activities.
Brannon-Wranosky said Texas was viewed as a fertile ground for reform by national suffrage leaders, especially in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.
“They thought Texas was one of the most promising southern states,” Brannon-Wranosky said. “Not only were there suffragists in Texas and women who were working on behalf of getting the right to vote, but there was a portion of legislators who were consistently interested (in women’s suffrage). Texas considered or discussed either in committee or on the floor of the Texas Legislature at different points women getting the right to vote fairly regularly for decades, starting during Reconstruction.”
And Fort Bend became a place where women could begin political careers. The first woman to be elected district clerk was Imogene M. Chance of Richmond, who served in that role from 1921-24 and later served as county clerk from 1927-30. The first woman to be elected county clerk was Kate Mitchell, who was in office from 1923-26, and following her and Chance was Nannie M. Lehman, whose tenure as county clerk was from 1931-34.
Brannon-Wranosky noted that gaining the support of male voters and male legislators was the only way the women’s suffrage movement was going to have the legal backing it needed to succeed.
“We focus on women, and we should, because it’s their story and they’re the ones fighting and they’re the ones lobbying most of the time,” Brannon-Wranosky said. “But it couldn’t have only been women or it never would have happened.”
Even after securing the right to vote, women still faced challenges. A newspaper clipping courtesy of Chris Godbold, the curator of the Fort Bend History Museum, reported that between 1920 and 1922, nearly 10,000 women in the county paid poll taxes.
A common misconception, Brannon-Wranosky said, is that women only became politically active once they gained the right to vote. She said there were women who held or ran for elected office at the local level in Texas even before the state passed the 19th Amendment in the 1890s.
“Women were political before that,” Brannon-Wranosky said. “And they also usually have party identity, too, because if they’re not political then they don’t see themselves invested in gaining this voice, this right to vote. Gaining the right to vote is very much a community identity, because if you don’t think or feel or believe you are part of a community, then you don’t see yourself as needing that voice.”
Echoing a sentiment shared by many local leaders in Fort Bend County and across the state’s fastest-growing metro areas, Brannon-Wranosky said the more diverse a voting population is, the more diverse its elected representatives should be. And while she finds that diversity promising, she said there’s still a long way to go, particularly when it comes to women holding elected office.
“I don’t think there’s necessarily a benchmark that needs to be reached,” Brannon-Wranosky said. “But it certainly hasn’t been, whatever it is.”