When we learn about women’s suffrage, we hear a lot about places like Seneca Falls and national marches in the streets of New York City and Washington, D.C. But women’s fight for the vote was not confined to upper class women in the north, as the popular narrative often implies. Thousands of women fought relentlessly for their full rights as American citizens before and after the passage of the 19th Amendment, including right here in Houston. Rae Bryant, along with several of her fellow geologists at the Houston Genealogical Forum, are on a mission to learn each of their names.
It all started last fall, when the group headed to the Harris County Archives to get a list of all the women who voted in 1920. “It turns out that list did not exist,” Bryant says. So, they decided to create one themselves—an endeavor that has since grown into the Houston Suffragists Project.
Compiling this list of names hasn’t been an easy quest by any means. The genealogists have spent months scouring newspapers, pamphlets, and correspondences between suffragists in search of the women active in the Harris County movement. They made countless cold calls and wrote tons of letters from their dining room tables (once the pandemic hit, each individual member has been working from her home). In some cases, the women have been harder to track than their male counterparts, simply because of 20th-century societal norms, Bryant says. “We have women who pay the poll tax under one name, and then at the end of the year, they’re married, so their name changed.”
Eventually, they sought poll tax records from 1919 (Texas women were permitted to vote in local and state primaries starting in 1918). “We figured if a woman was even willing to pay the poll tax in 1919, she likely would in 1920,” Bryant says. The group had a breakthrough when they discovered that Texas used 1919 poll tax data in the 1920 election. “The 1919 poll tax data wasn’t just a list,” says Bryant, “it was the list.”
Of course, there was still more work to be done. By cross-referencing this list with the 1920 census record, the genealogists have been able to compile a database of around 2,000 names out of an estimated 14,000 women who voted in 1920. The census has also allowed them to include other information about the voters, including where they lived in Harris County and what their occupations were. Now the group has put all that data into an online interactive map that Houstonians will be able to explore.
Bryant and the other founders hope Houstonians and Harris County residents get involved, tracking down their own relatives and sharing any documents, photographs, or family stories they might have. The same goes for local women’s groups, churches, and social clubs, which likely have names in their organization’s records. Any information that groups and individuals share with the Houston Suffragists Project will be incorporated into the map to help create a fuller picture of the suffragists who lived in Harris County. “We also want to collect as many pictures of the women who are on that list,” says Bryant. “We need their faces and their stories.”
Learn more about the Houston Suffragists Project at hgftx.org.