Grandmother worked hard for the right to vote

A writer remembers her grandmother's stories of being a suffragist.

Courtesy of Patricia Riddle Gaddis
For voting: Valerie Watts Fox was an early feminist in the suffragist movement.

Aug. 18 is a very special day to me. I honor this day each year because it marks the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees all American women the right to vote.

Throughout the 19th century, several generations of women lectured, wrote, marched, and lobbied to achieve what was considered to be a radical change to the Constitution.

My grandmother was one of those women, and she never took her right to vote for granted.

When I was a little girl, I spent a great deal of time with my grandmother. My father was ill, and in the 1960s, children under the age of 12 weren't allowed to visit patients in the hospital. Consequently, while my mother and older siblings spent time with my dad, I was with my grandmother.

On summer evenings we would sit on her big front porch and she would tell me stories of her youth. Born in 1885, my grandmother was strongly influenced by the writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, preeminent advocates of women's rights.

I never grew tired of hearing her talk about growing up during a time in which women were not allowed to vote or hold public office.

In her younger days, my grandmother wanted to become a notary public, a position held only by men at the beginning of the 20th century. My grandmother, along with many other women, wrote letters to legislatures, asking them to expand the qualifications of a notary public to include women.

On Oct. 29, 1915, she attended the Second Annual Convention of the Equal Suffrage Association of North Carolina in Asheville. There she learned of the North Carolina Supreme Court's decision to declare unconstitutional the bill that would have made women eligible for the position of notary public.

According to the court's decision, the position was not "a place of profit and trust," as the legislature had said, but "an office," and consequently, only registered voters were eligible. This completely eliminated all women from holding the title.

Although my grandmother and many other women were disheartened by this decision, they continued their letter-writing campaign, urging the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Grandmother strongly believed that women should be allowed to excel in business, hold political positions, and enjoy the same opportunities that were afforded to men.

I loved hearing about her first voting experience in 1920. My grandfather was out of town on a business trip and could not accompany her on that special day, so she dressed all six of her children in their Sunday best and took a streetcar to the nearest voting precinct.

Her blue eyes sparkled through gold-framed spectacles as she told me about walking into the voting polls with a baby in her arms (my mother) and five other children in tow!

Suffragist organizations had warned their members to be wary of approaches by men in various voting districts, who might offer to help women voters in the polling booth. The same forces that had previously prevented them from voting were now attempting to influence their decision at the ballot box.

Armed with this knowledge, my grandmother had a ready answer for the man who approached her. "Would you like for me to help you cast your first ballot? It can be very confusing," he said.

"No, thank you," my grandmother replied firmly. "I have already discussed this matter with my husband."

The man immediately backed off, disempowered by her response, but undoubtedly reassured that another patriarch was overseeing her actions. Her little white lie projected a shield of confidence and capability without offending the male chauvinist.

In reality, my grandfather loved his wife's independent spirit and was unconcerned about her voting choices.

After casting her ballot, my grandmother and her brood stopped at a soda shop for ice cream to celebrate.

That evening, she listened to the first commercial radio broadcast coverage of election returns between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox.

Before that, election coverage was through newspapers on the following day or on record albums that could be purchased after the election.

It was a landslide victory for Harding in both the Electoral College and popular vote. But, interestingly enough, Grandmother never told me who she voted for, nor did I think to ask.

The story of her journey was enough to satisfy me!

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