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Exhibit Highlights NC's Discomfort With 19th Amendment

RALEIGH — North Carolina has a less-than-friendly history with the 19th Amendment, as a small exhibit traveling the state to mark the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage makes clear.

The exhibit includes the jacket of the first suffrage bill filed in 1897, indicating it was sent to a legislative panel called the Committee on Insane Asylums, and a telegram North Carolina legislators sent to their colleagues in Tennessee asking them not to approve the amendment, which needed one more state to become law.

Instead, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, giving women the right to vote.

“I would characterize North Carolina’s consideration of it as: We dithered,” State Archivist Sarah Koonts said.

The exhibit, which opened in September in Raleigh, is part of a larger program from the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources called “She Changed the World: North Carolina Women Breaking Barriers.” It will be displayed for one day a month at various locations through October 2020. It was in Mars Hill in November and will be the Southern Pines Library on Jan. 29.

Koonts said that when the first women’s suffrage bill went to the Committee on Insane Asylums, which was chaired by the legislator who filed the bill, Rep. J.L. Hyatt of Yanceyville, “he knew that was a signal that they didn’t want it to pass.”

North Carolina’s copy of the 19th Amendment was pulled from its vault in the State Archives for the exhibit. Although the state would have gotten the copy not long after the amendment was ratified in 1920, North Carolina didn’t sign off on it until more than 50 years later.

In 1971, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters called the oversight to the attention of Willis Whichard, a retired state Supreme Court justice who was then 30 years old and serving his first term in the state House.

“It was not controversial,” Whichard said. “The truth is the male legislators were eager to say how important women had been in their campaigns and eager to vote for it.”

The bill passed with no opposition in the House or Senate, he said. The only state to wait longer to ratify the amendment is Mississippi, which signed off on it in 1984.

Both supporters and opponents of suffrage used racism in their campaigns. For example, the exhibit includes a flyer from the anti-suffrage side calling on “men of the South” to “remember that woman suffrage means a re-opening of the entire Negro Suffrage questions; loss of state rights; and another period of reconstruction horrors, which will introduce a set of female carpet-baggers as bad as their male prototypes of the sixties.”

The pro-suffrage strategy in North Carolina wasn't as outrageously racist, Koonts said.

Although the 19th Amendment gave all women the right to vote, the reality was that some states used intimidation and tactics such as literacy tests to prevent black women and other minorities from casting their ballots. That didn't begin to change until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.

“This is really an incomplete story,” Koonts said of the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage. “Black and Native American women worked hard for suffrage, but in the end, it’s white women who are going to vote.”