Home Opinion History Minute: Women gaining the right to vote in Arkansas

History Minute: Women gaining the right to vote in Arkansas

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Kenneth Bridges
History Columnist

Today in Arkansas,
few give any
thought to the idea
of women voting.
However, the right
of women to vote is
something that has
emerged only fairly
recently in American History, and Arkansas
was ahead of most states on the issue. Women
winning the right to vote was the result of
many years of hard work by individuals as well
as such organizations as the Arkansas Woman
Suffrage Association.
Women actually received the right to
vote first in New Jersey in 1776, but it was an
oversight. The state’s new constitution gave
the right to vote to any resident who owned
property and did not specify men only. Some
women met the property-owning requirement
(which was not unusual in the years
before universal suffrage) but saw their right to
vote stripped away in 1806. The Seneca Falls
Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York,
in 1848, called for all women to be given equal
rights with men, but it took decades to overcome
political obstacles and social conventions
that kept women out of the election process.
While the occasional Arkansan remained sympathetic
to the idea, no organized attempts to
gain the right to vote for women existed in the
state until the 1880s. In 1881, Eliza Fyler, an
attorney, organized the Arkansas Woman Suffrage
Association in Eureka Springs. While the
group attracted several members, it collapsed
when Fyler died in 1885. Clara McDiarmid
organized another version of the Arkansas
Woman Suffrage Association in Little Rock in
1888 that also folded quickly.
Anti-suffragists hurled a bizarre array of
arguments against women voting, including
suggestions that wives would cancel out the
votes of their husbands or that women voting
would cause them to abandon their families.
Nevertheless, as the twentieth century began,
a new generation of activists were gaining the
vote for women throughout the West, proving
that women in politics strengthened society
rather than weakened it. In Arkansas, the
AWSA was resurrected along with the Political
Equality League in the early 1910s.
With the election of Charles Brough as
governor in 1916, suffragists found a powerful
ally. Brough recognized the increasingly
prominent role women were taking in promoting
social issues, regardless of their inability to
vote and supported giving them the vote. On
March 7, 1917, the state legislature approved
the right to vote for women. Brough stated
that it would be “a mighty factor in the educational,
social, and moral amelioration of our
state.”
Support for women voting was lukewarm,
however. Arkansas women would have the
right to vote, but it would only be in primary
elections. But Arkansas was a one-party state
in 1917, which meant that the winner of the
Democratic Primary almost automatically won
the general election anyway.
Four other states would grant women the right
to vote that year in some capacity. More than
thirty states still had not given women the
right to vote, and it would still be three more
years before enough states ratified the suffrage
amendment to give women the right to vote
nationwide. Texas would also give women the
right to vote only in primary elections in 1918,
making Arkansas and Texas the only two states
to grant women the vote in this way.
Today, women easily make up half the voting
population of the state and have represented
Arkansas in a variety of offices, including both
houses of Congress, Secretary to State, city
councils, and as mayors. Where women were
once denied the right to vote, in many Arkansas
communities it is now women who are
responsible for registering voters and running
elections.

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