Texas women took softer approach to winning the vote

By: Trish Choate

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In the early 1900s, Texas women had equal rights -- when it came to chopping wood, plowing the field or fixing fence.

But women couldn't vote and if they took part in politics, well, they might get the vapors or become incapable of bearing children. It certainly wouldn't be ladylike.

"They had all these responsibilities, particularly in the rural areas, working alongside the men, keeping the farms and ranches going," said Nancy Baker Jones, head of the Ruthe Winegarten Foundation for Texas Women's History in Austin. "But they themselves couldn't vote."

The voting-rights movement began later in the Lone Star State than in other parts of the country, but Texans were among the more than 5,000 marchers in the Women's Suffrage Procession on March 3, 1913, in Washington, D.C. This weekend Texans will again journey to the nation's capital, for the Suffrage Centennial Celebration and a parade reenactment on Sunday morning.

Political life in 19th century Texas was rough and tumble -- seen as no place for a woman. Spittoons were part of the decor in the Texas Legislature where men drank beer, smoked cigars and told off-color stories, Baker Jones said. Call girls also were part of the scenery.

Middle-class values held that females were frail creatures -- just not strong enough to understand the issues, she said.

Women, particularly married women, didn't have many rights, said Linda Denny, a board member for the National Women's History Museum and an organizer of the Suffrage Centennial Celebration.

"Anything that she owned when she married became her husband's property," Denny said.

In 1875, the Texas Constitution spelled out who was barred from the polls. "That included lunatics, paupers and felons, but the Constitution didn't even mention women," Baker Jones said.

Texas women took that to mean they had even lower status -- and hard work ahead to get the vote, she said.

Lone Star State ladies worked for suffrage differently from those on the national stage. Texas activists didn't want to appear militant like those in Washington who picketed outside the White House and burned effigies of President Woodrow Wilson.

In the South, suffragists felt pressure to mind conservative social mores and not step beyond the bounds of ladylike behavior -- one reason the movement lost its steam in the Lone Star State, said Erica Whittington, program officer for nonprofit Humanities Texas.

World War I provided a turning point for the suffrage movement when men saw the value of women's contribution to the war effort, Whittington said.

San Angelo rancher Charles B. Metcalfe provided another boost. A Texas legislator from 1914 to 1918, his priorities included tick and scab eradication -- and women's suffrage, according to the Handbook of Texas Online.

Metcalfe introduced a bill in 1918 to allow women to vote in primaries, which was approved in the state House 84-34 and the Senate 18-4 and signed into law. Because Texas was a largely Democratic state then and races were decided predominantly in primaries, the move basically provided enfranchisement to women.

The next year, the national push to ratify the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, swept through Texas. The Legislature met in special session in June 1919, and Texas became the first state in the South to approve the amendment.

An Austin woman taking part in the Suffrage Centennial Celebration in Washington this weekend says there's more to do to guarantee equal rights for women.

Linda Young of Austin said she'll be on hand for the announcement that the Equal Rights Amendment will be introduced in Congress -- again -- on March 6.

"Texas actually passed it at the time it was soaring back 40 years ago," Young, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, said.

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