Voting, to many of us, seems like a given. It is, after all, the most basic right given to us under our constitution—one of the foremost responsibilities we have as citizens. Women here in the Bayou City took that responsibility seriously, long before they were ever afforded that right, but only recently have we discovered how deep those feelings of civic duty went.
While tracking down the women who cast their first federal election vote in 1920, Rae Bryant and a small group of her fellow genealogists with the Houston Suffragists Project uncovered what they believe is a never-before-heard piece of Texas voter "herstory." The story, which is featured in the Heritage Society's suffrage exhibit, involves money, a court case, and the brilliant legal mind of Houstonian Hortense Sparks Ward.
“This is going to change a lot of the thinking,” about the 1920 election, Bryant tells Houstonia.
Contrary to the stories we often hear, the fight for women’s voting rights didn’t end when Congress certified the 19th Amendment on August 26, 1920. Several states still attempted to weaken the female vote through various means, says Bryant. “Many women in Southern states still had to roll up their sleeves and fight,” she says. “Not a single woman qualified to vote in Atlanta in 1920. Only one qualified in the entire state of Georgia. In Charleston, no women got to vote.”
At the time, the opposition to women’s suffrage was tied to corporate interests, including those of the liquor industry (women were in favor of prohibition—a fact that was surely a scandal to the gents of Texas). “Cotton was also a big industry, and many women worked in textile and clothing factories in Houston,” Bryant says. “The men who owned the cotton mills knew that if women could vote, they’d be able to push for higher wages and better working conditions.”
The Lone Star State was no exception in making things difficult for women voters. Like other states over the years, Texas attempted to suppress votes through a poll tax, a fee individuals were required to pay annually in order to vote. At the time, Houstonians were required to pay $1.50—the equivalent of about $20 by today’s standards, which was, for some, a whole day’s wages—by January 31 of an election year.
Since the 1920 poll tax was due months before women even knew they were going to be able to vote, the state legislature decided to use the poll tax records from 1919 (women in the Lone Star State had been able to vote in primaries for two years). They also gave women an extra two-week window to pay, but with offices only open from 8 to 5 on weekdays, it could be difficult to pay “if you worked a full-time job or lived in a rural area,” says Bryant.
The ploy worked; by the end of the payment period, only about 1,000 women had paid the tax in Harris County. Luckily, Houston women had their own secret weapon: lawyer and suffragist Hortense Sparks Ward. Ten days before the general election, Ward sued Harris County, arguing that the poll tax itself was a violation of the newly certified 19th Amendment. To everyone’s surprise, the court ruled in her favor and struck down the 1920 poll tax requirement, making Harris County the only county in the state where women would be able to vote, whether or not they’d paid their poll tax.
And you can best bet they did. On November 2, 1920, thousands of Houston women showed up to the polls; in some districts, women voters even outnumbered men. This was in large part due to the efforts of Black organizers in Harris County. Not only were there more African Americans voting than ever before, it was believed that nearly every Black woman in Houston who was eligible to vote was casting a ballot, The Houston Chronicle reported at the time. “This was a whole generation before the Civil Rights Movement,” says Bryant. “They broke Jim Crow for a day, and it was a promise of what women wanted the future to be.”
As the day wore on, polling stations were overwhelmed by the large numbers of women voters and the lack of election officials. Why? Turns out many disgruntled male election workers didn’t report to their posts, hoping to slow the line and discourage women from voting. Of course, it didn’t work. Soon enough, Texas women, who had never voted in a presidential election—let alone officiated in one—were volunteering to "man" the polling stations.
By the end of the day, approximately 14,000 women had voted in Harris County; the Houston Suffragists Project estimates 5,000 to 6,000 of those voters were Black women. “One woman in Harris County who voted in 1920 was 80 years old and said, ‘Finally, in the eyes of Texas, I am an adult,’” Bryant says. “Not only does it mean you’re an adult, it also means you’re truly a citizen.”