Today is the anniversary of women’s right to vote. On this day in 1920, the 19th amendment went into effect and women officially gained the right to vote across the country. Suffragists had been working in Texas for decades long before the national amendment granted all American women access to the ballot box.
You’ve probably heard of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul – but have you heard of Minnie Fisher Cunningham? She was one of the leaders of the suffrage movement in Texas, and she fought with many women (and some men) to ensure that Texan women could have a say in their government. But how many women still exercise that right?
Women’s suffrage first came up at the Constitutional Convention in 1868, and again in 1875 when black men were awarded the right to vote in the state. The Texas Equal Rights Association was formed in 1893, and the first suffrage bill was filed in 1895.
The Texas Women’s Suffrage Assocation (TWSA) was formed in 1903 and by 1914 it had over 2,500 members across the state. In 1907, Jess Baker of Granbury authored another suffrage bill in the Texas House, which Baker did again in 1911. A vote was taken on the suffrage resolution in the House in 1915, but it failed to pass, and similarly failed when another suffrage resolution was introduced in 1917.
The tenacity of the suffragettes in Texas is incredible. They continued to fight for their right to vote until the state opened up primary voting to women in 1918. If this sounds strange to us now, consider that Texas was a strongly Democratic state at the time, so primaries determined the vast majority of who held power in the state. In 1919, Texas became the ninth state to ratify the 19th amendment, despite the failure of women’s suffrage when it was put to popular vote on the ballot as an amendment to the state constitution.
With a history of fiercely-willed Texas women who fought tirelessly for suffrage, the numbers of women voting in Texas today are especially disappointing. From the Texas Women Vote Project, five facts about Texan women at the polls:
1. Texas women lag far behind the national average in voting. In 2012, 63.7% of eligible women voted nationally. In Texas, only 57% of eligible women voted.2. In 2010, Texas ranked last in women’s voter participation. In that election, 46% of eligible women voted nationally. In Texas, only 37% of eligible women voted.
3. In 2010, over 1 million Texas women who voted both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections stayed home.
4. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the population of Texas women over the age of 18 increased by 538,557 between July 1, 2010 and July 1, 2013. While not all of these women are eligible to vote, clearly the number of women voters in Texas is poised for significant growth.
5. The first election where Texas women could vote was the 1918 Democratic primary. That’s right: Texas women had the right to vote in a party primary two years before the passage of the 19th Amendment. In 17 days, 386,000 Texas women registered to vote in that 1918 election. The results of that primary included the nomination a pro-women’s suffrage governor and the first women elected to statewide office.
As a voting block, women voters have elected presidents and – more importantly for us in 2014 – Texas State senators. Women voters were key to electing Wendy Davis to her Senate seat, and to keeping her there. National parties recognize the power of this section of the electorate, and they are hastily working to craft messaging that effectively brings women to their side. Ever since women won their hard-fought battle for the ballot, they have been shaping the future of this country and this state.
It is more important now than ever before for women in Texas to take advantage of this right. With a historic ballot featuring two women for the top two statewide positions in Texas, this election could be a game changer – but it isn’t going to change without all of us.
Women in Texas deserve better. We deserve public schools that meet the needs of our families, to be paid adequately and fairly for the jobs we do, to have access to affordable quality healthcare including a full range of reproductive health services, and to have unfettered access to the ballot box. We also deserve to see ourselves and our experiences reflected in our legislature – something that certainly isn’t the case now, where only 38 out of 151 elected officials are women.
On the anniversary of the right to vote for women across the country, women in Texas need to remember how hard-won that right truly is. And then, come November, we need to use it.