Two ladies made their way to the Siloam voter registrar on Saturday, Oct. 23, 1920. The registrar, generally a sheriff’s deputy, likely set up in a corner of a general store or at the post office and people came in from the farms and houses across the township to get their name in the book in advance of the coming election that would choose magistrates, sheriffs, state legislators, and US president.
Lucinda Ashburn, 83, and Mariah Stone, 94, were the eldest citizens to register in the township that year. It was the last day to register that year and the sisters, along with their extended families, took advantage of their newly-gained power.
They were part of a near flood of women registering to vote for the first time as the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution extending the right to vote to women, had been ratified August 18 that year. Until that year only men who owned property and were over the age of 21 could vote.
Literacy tests and poll taxes acted as an effective block for many, especially Black and poor men.
There had been a lively debate in many states with protests and meetings of suffragist groups and anti-suffragist groups clashing. Sadly, the surviving records in Surry that we at the museum are aware of are largely silent on the matter of women’s suffrage. No articles in the newspapers about parades or rallies agitating for the vote. No passionate sermons reported decrying the idea or supporting it.
Regardless, when the time came, Surry women went to the polls. Of the 83 people who registered that year in Siloam, 58 were women.
Poll taxes were paid in spring. Voters were required to present the receipt at the spring primaries and November general elections. Newspaper campaigns reminded citizens as the editor of the Elkin Tribune did in April 1918.
“How about your voting next fall? Have you paid your poll tax for last year: Unless it is paid by May 1st you will not get to vote. Sheriff Eldridge will be here next Saturday, April 20th, the last chance you will have to see him here as he will be at Dobson court next week. Better get your receipt.”
As the 19th Amendment made its way through the states, working toward the ratification in the required 36 states, the editor of the Mount Airy News and the Greensboro Daily News pondered the question of how women, who hadn’t paid poll taxes that spring, were going to be able to vote in November.
North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Clark opined that, just like a man over 50, the poll tax requirement would be waived.
This brought up another concern for many; if one requirement could be waived, others could as well. If the literacy requirement was ignored, many editors across the region agreed with the editor of the Greensboro paper who wrote, “the colored woman can come into the politics of the state without meeting the educational qualification.”
Education was stressed at the Surry County Democratic Convention held in Dobson at the end of September 1920 as the party members chose their candidates for local offices and discussed who they’d support in higher offices.
The News reported many women were seated at the convention and were made welcome by the chair W. F. Carter. The issues discussed ranged from support for a progressive income tax that laid a heavier burden on the wealthy and the vital road improvements that could be paid for with the added revenue to a strong, low-interest farm loan act and support for an expanded parcel post delivery system that would help rural businesses compete.
There were, apparently, quite a number of things to be concerned about if women were allowed to vote, as laid out in a letter to the editor of the Mount Airy News on September 9, 1920.
“I would say that there is going to be some dissatisfaction about the women … not being able to go to the voting places,” the anonymous author wrote. “Just let the man ask his wife if she wants to vote for (Democratic presidential candidate James) Cox and let him [cast it] for her, and let her stay at home and tend to the baby.”
Why? Well, it was simple, really; their safety.
“I believe that would be the best way. Now there are going to be some mighty pretty girls there but don’t wear them low neck dresses, if you please, for all who will be there are not saints and it looks like some of them are just too low necked to look nice and a little longer would be better.”
Many women did opt out of registering to vote as they felt it wasn’t their place or they were not permitted to vote by fathers and husbands. But the poll books show quite a few women did take up their newly gained voice. Some voted with their husbands or children. Some voted in groups, as many as 16 arriving together in the Mount Airy 1922 elections.
So, ladies, we’ve had the vote for 100 years and, as is true of every election, we face many important decisions on November 3. Our foremothers took their duty seriously. I hope each of you and all our brothers do as well. See you at the polls!
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the visitor services manager for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum staff. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours. She can be reached at KRSmith@NorthCarolinaMuseum.org or by calling 336-786-4478 x228