The 19th Amendment became law on Aug. 26, 1920, only a little over two months before the presidential election scheduled for Nov. 2 of that year. The newly enfranchised women had little time to learn how to vote in the upcoming election.
Women in a number of western states and two states east of the Mississippi had enjoyed voting rights even before the passage of the 19th Amendment, but the majority of women now eligible were first-time voters. The League of Women Voters, organized in 1919, helped women prepare for voting with “Schools of Citizenship.” Other methods to prepare women for voting were mock voting booths to practice voting, and educational exercises in newspapers.
Citizenship classes were organized in many areas of Kentucky during the summer of 1919 and Lexington suffragist Mary Scrugham prepared the lectures. Her material was published by the Lexington Herald, and copies were widely distributed to women’s clubs and suffrage associations, as well as new chapters of the League of Women Voters. These voter training materials were supplemented by Frankfort resident Emma Guy Cromwell’s new book "Citizenship: A Manual for Voters." Already involved in politics, she had designed her book to help the newly enfranchised women and other new voters.
But now women faced new barriers to their vote in the form of requirements many southern states had long used to exclude black voters. The 19th Amendment failed to address who was responsible to make sure women’s votes were permitted and counted. Registering to vote could depend on location, as well as race, and many women discovered they still faced barriers by individual states’ exclusionary voting requirements.
Though women gained suffrage more than two months before election day, the states of Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina required that individuals who failed to register six months prior to the election were ineligible to vote, so the new right to vote was denied to the women of these states.
A determined Georgia suffragist, Mary Jarett White, had managed to register on April 1. She presented herself to the registrar, signed her name and paid Georgia’s poll tax. She voted on election day. However, African Americans, both men and now women, who tried to register in the South were widely threatened with physical harm, burning of property and requirements such as poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures that closed the door for voting not only to African Americans but poor whites, Irish and Italian immigrants as well.
In sharp contrast, many states outside the South gave the new women voters a helping hand with early registration, extended registration and exemption from poll tax. Kentucky women did vote and their turnout was high, with more than half of all Kentucky women voting. In even more dramatic contrast, in neighboring Virginia less than 10% of women actually voted in the 1920 presidential election.
The new women’s vote may not have been obvious at the polls, but women soon showed their political strength in shaping policy by forming the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee and by supporting the 1921 Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act to fund maternal and child health clinics. Sheppard-Towner would become a model for federal/state partnerships that greatly influenced the New Deal through the Depression years after 1932.
Even with its limitations, the 19th Amendment has helped women grow and step into new roles in education, professions, commerce and public affairs over the past century.
And now, young women of today, think about the progress you will make in the next century. Let’s start with quality and affordable child care programs.
Sources for this article include History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. VI, page 215, https://www.nps.gov/articles/beyond-1920-the-legacies-of-woman-suffrage.htm, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-first-women-voters-experienced-when-registering-1920-election-180975435/ and https://www.wvxu.org/post/after-suffrage-many-women-failed-vote-kentuckians-were-exception#stream/0.