By Candice Buchanan, Greene Connections Archivist
One hundred years ago, Pennsylvania women, like most of their sisters across the country, did not have the right to vote. The controversial struggle for such a movement began formally in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. The defining doctrine that emerged from the Seneca Falls Convention laid the groundwork for the next century of hard-fought rights equality. Interestingly, one of the many points of contention at Seneca Falls was the lack of equal education for women compared to that of men. In Greene County, Pennsylvania, just one year later in 1849, Waynesburg College was founded and by the mid-1850s the school was offering strikingly progressive, equal, coeducational opportunities for women. Arguably, by this unique leap forward in female education, our small community was ahead of most others in the country. Nevertheless, the concept of women casting ballots was slow to take hold. As women battled state by state to gain enfranchisement, Pennsylvania lagged behind. Not until 1915, did the state’s legislature attempt to grant its women suffrage (voting rights). The initiative failed statewide. Specifically, men in Greene County voted 1,694 For vs. 2,070 Against giving women the right to vote. Women, of course, had no opportunity to cast a ballot on the matter. Pennsylvania men, including Greene County men, voted to deny Pennsylvania women the right to vote.
The hope of Pennsylvania women, like those in most states, then rested upon the passage of a federal amendment to the constitution. The language of the proposed 19th Amendment was simple, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
On May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives in Washington DC passed the 19th Amendment. Two weeks later, June 4, 1919, the Senate also passed it. Then the all un-to-certain battle to win-over 36 state legislatures began.
On June 24, 1919, Pennsylvania became the 7th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, which would ultimately give women the right to vote. Pennsylvania’s suffrage flag, with 7 stars in each of the purple and gold suffrage colors, marks our place in the slow national progress. The 36th state, Tennessee, finally ratified after an intense and never certain effort over a year later on August 18, 1920. At last, on August 26, 1920, after the required 36th state’s ratification was confirmed, the amendment was certified and made a part of the United States Constitution. This conclusion was just in time for women to register to vote in the Presidential Election of 1920.
The Waynesburg Republican newspaper was a champion of Women’s Suffrage and celebrated the victory of the amendment. Immediately after the amendment’s adoption, the newspaper began publishing front page, highly visible columns encouraging Greene County women to register and participate in the fall election. Local women took up the opportunity eagerly. They literally had just days to register if they wanted to vote in November. Between the amendment’s adoption on August 26th and the registration deadline on September 1st, 7,074 women in Greene County registered to vote, compared to 8,082 men who were already on the rolls.
On Tuesday, November 2, 1920, Greene County women joined their sisters across the country at the polls. The Waynesburg Republican had much to celebrate in their weekly issue on November 4th. They heralded the victory of the Republican candidate Warren Harding as President and the wins of their party throughout the state, but above the President-elect’s expressions of gratitude, was an article praising the first female voters of the hometown precincts. The language of the day is worth reading exactly as it was written for the sake of both its history and its era and so it is below in its entirety. It both celebrates women and shows how far we had yet to come. Most of the ladies highlighted are identified as being the “Mrs.” attached to their husbands’ names rather than their own. A tone of surprise at the lack of nervousness upon entering the voting booth for the first time echoes the misperceptions of the day.
“New Voters Show Interest in Election” article, Waynesburg Republican, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, 4 November 1920, page 1. Transcribed by Candice Buchanan.
“New Voters Show Interest in Election
Notwithstanding Jupiter Pluvius acted as unchivalrously as it was possible for him to do, the new voters of Waynesburg and Greene County braved the bad weather and voted. They turned out in goodly numbers in every ward and precinct and were at the polls early. They were much interested and while it was a new experience they knew how they wanted to vote and marked their ballots and placed them in the ballot boxes as quickly as the men, showing little or no nervousness over their new privilege. At some of the polling places voters were waiting when the officials arrived. In the North Ward No. 2, Waynesburg, several women voters were waiting, among others being Dr. Jane Teagarden, who is believed to be the first woman to cast the ballot in Waynesburg. Miss Minerva Minor and “Aunt Betsy” Workman, who was once a slave in Virginia, were voters in this precinct who have passed the eightieth mile stone.
The following women were appointed watchers at the polls: Misses Anna Mary Cooke, Jane Sayers, Nella Hoskinson, Mrs. William Bennet, Mrs. John Clark, Mrs. L. M. Hoge, Mrs. A. A. Purman, Mrs. J. B. F. Rinehart, Mrs. Ella Miller, Mrs. A. E. McKee, Mrs. John Huffman and Miss Blanche Hickman.”
Women’s Suffrage was a bi-partisan and cross-party issue. Republicans and Democrats struggled within their parties, having members both for and against. Both parties were anxious to receive credit for the Amendment’s passage, yet both parties had prevented the passage for many years. In the end, the 19th Amendment’s ultimate ratification is a history we can celebrate together.
The downfall and embarrassment of the suffrage movement is the way it positively impacted white women over their sisters of all colors. Throughout the suffrage movement there was constantly a struggle with race equality. Bewildering examples of beloved leaders in the women’s movement not standing up for the equality of all, or worse being willing to sacrifice the rights of others to their own advantage, diminishes the celebration of the 19th Amendment’s successes. This is history that we must confront and we must do better. We do not know the exact statistics related to this aspect of voter registration yet for Greene County, nor what the atmosphere regarding voter registration and participation was like here. We hope to learn more as we delve into the identities of each woman on the voter rolls and this topic in our community’s history. We do know from the Waynesburg Republican feature that a former slave Mary Elizabeth “Aunt Betsy” (McDonald) Workman cast her ballot on November 2, 1920, at the North Ward No. 2 precinct in Waynesburg. She was born as a slave in Virginia in 1841 and ultimately married Cornelius Gillespie “Neil” Workman of Greene County, Pennsylvania.
To see if your female ancestors may have been among the first voters in Greene County, take a look at the multi-volume set of “Occupation and Personal Property Assessment of Females for the Year 1921,” preserved in the official county records. Misleadingly captioned for the coming year, these records were actually created in 1920 just ahead of Election Day. The purpose of these unique registers was to document Greene County’s female electors and assess the poll tax that was required to be paid in order to vote. For ease of access, these volumes have been digitized and indexed by volunteer Jim Fordyce. Mr. Fordyce’s books are available to view at the Cornerstone Genealogical Society Library in the annex to the original log cabin Greene County Courthouse on Greene Street. Visitors are welcome and admission is free.
Visit the Archives section at www.GreeneConnections.com throughout the next year as we add to this research. Using the Tags tab in the Archives, you can look at related subject search terms, such as Politics, 19th Amendment, or Women’s Suffrage, as well as the names of those involved in the fight for suffrage and among the first 7,074 women who registered to participate in the first electoral opportunity.
Candice Buchanan, “Early Coeducational Institution as Matchmaker: A Study of Romantic Attachments at Waynesburg College 1850-1875.” Western Pennsylvania History Magazine, vol. 91 (Fall 2008): 46-57.
“New Voters Show Interest in Election” article, Waynesburg Republican, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, 4 November 1920, page 1.
“Oldest Woman Voter in Waynesburg” article, Waynesburg Republican, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, 8 November 1928, page 1, column 2.
Mariam Williams, “Pennsylvania Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage: Votes by County, 1915,” Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH) at Rutgers-Camden, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, 2 June 2017 (https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/woman-suffrage/screen-shot-2017-05-30-at-5-27-54-pm/ : viewed, 2019).
“Women Register August 31 and Sept. 1” article, Waynesburg Republican, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, 26 August 1920, page 1.