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At the dawn of women's suffrage in Georgia, Hall County men worried whether their biscuits would be burned
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

This being the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, allowing women to vote, it’s interesting to see what the mood in North Georgia, specifically Hall County, was at the time.

In the years leading up to ratification in 1920, there was considerable debate on the issue, with even quite a few women opposed.

But this comment by a man, who identified himself as Farmer Radford, is pretty typical of the sentiment before the amendment passed:

“Home is the greatest contribution of women to the world, and the hearthstone is her home. Directing the affairs of government is not within women’s sphere, and political gossip would cause her to neglect the home, forget to mend our clothes and burn the biscuits.”

Whoa! That kind of comment from a man today could become grounds for divorce, if not justifiable homicide.

The Woman’s Democratic Suffrage Organization of Atlanta came to Brenau College in July 1913 to debate the issue with a couple of Gainesville lawyers sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Lawyers Hammond Johnson and Edgar Dunlap spoke for the negative side, against women’s right to vote. Their argument was, “It is the birthright of man that he should protect his mother, sister and the women who are dear to him. It is his divine right, it is the right of the government, and the men of this country would betray this divine trust if they should place that high duty in the weak and nerveless hands of those designed by God to be protected rather than to engage in the stern warfare of government.”

Whoa, again! But that argument won the day, according to judges W.A. Charters, Mrs. C.C. Sanders, Joseph Boone, George P. Estes and the Rev. I.M. Merlinjones.

Other debates cropped up in Hall County. Young people in the Candler Community in 1916 organized to debate the issues of the day, including women’s right to vote. The Current Events Club in Hall County sponsored a debate whose theme was “Women’s Suffrage Must Succeed.” Nell Bryan and Ruth Carter argued for the affirmative, and Hortense Hardy and Frances Scupine for the negative. Again, the negatives won.

Ella Mae Powell, a prominent suffragette, was the first woman to come to Gainesville, again at Brenau, to speak for women’s right to vote. The National Women’s Party also came to Brenau to seek support for the 19th Amendment.

They were up against a groundswell of opposition, especially in the early years of the movement. Typical was the comment by the Laurens County Herald: “We pity this country of ours when women are given suffrage.”

Georgia became the first state to reject the 19th Amendment. A Georgia U.S. senator, however, cast one of the two votes needed to make the two-thirds majority required in the Senate. He was W.J. Harris of Cedartown, the only Southern senator to vote in favor.

Even after the 19th Amendment had been ratified by enough state legislatures to make women’s right to vote official, Georgia women couldn’t vote until 1922, two years behind other states. That was because the state required registration to vote six months before an election, and it would be 1922 before another statewide election was held. Other states, except for Mississippi, waived that restriction.

Some women not only were eager to cast ballots, they wanted to run for office. A Mrs. Lipscomb from Rabun County announced her intention to run for the 9th District in Congress. Jeanette Rankin of Montana, an anti-World War I activist, who caused a commotion as a speaker at Brenau a few years earlier, was the first woman elected to Congress. Rebecca Felton of Georgia was the first female U.S, senator, serving only one day via a gubernatorial appointment.

The first female to run for office in Hall County was Emma Whelchel, who sought the ordinary’s office vacated by the death of her husband, W.D. Whelchel. As popular as she was, she could manage to win only two precincts, losing to Arnold Bennett by 132 votes out of more than 1,000 cast.

Women turned out to vote. The Gainesville News noticed the difference at the polls: “It looked like a church affair. No loud talking. No bleary eyes and spitting tobacco juice over the floor.”

Earlier in the campaign for women to vote, the News and other newspapers were reluctant to offer their support, often presenting the “against” side over those who favored the amendment.

But the News finally conceded, “Franchise for women is not such a bad thing at all, and we do not object to it in the least. We are willing to trust the women with the ballot. They will certainly do no worse than we men have done.”  

Amen.

Or should it be awomen?

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville; 770-532-2326; johnny.peggy1956@gmail.com. or vardeman1956@att.net.

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