Local History Notes

Notes about the history of Iredell County by Joel Reese, Local History Librarian.

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Apr 06

Progress for women's rights was slow in North Carolina

Posted on April 6, 2020 at 9:23 AM by Iredell County Public Library

Have you ever heard the phrase, “spinster school teacher?” It referred to the fact that traditionally women teachers were always unmarried. It wasn’t that school teachers were particularly homely and no one asked them. You see a woman in what some call “the good ole days” was not supposed to have a job. The teaching profession was one of the few that allowed a woman to work and have her own income.

That freedom came with a price, though. You see once a woman married she was expected to stop teaching and dedicate herself to caring for her husband and his home.

The Landmark newspaper on May 17, 1923, carried the following on Page One.

“At a meeting of the school board Monday, it was agreed that in selecting teachers for the city school’s preference would be given to unmarried women, and that any single woman hereafter elected shall be elected with the implied condition that her marriage is equivalent to her resignation.”

Of course, this rule did not apply to male teachers.

March was Women’s History Month and it’s important to remember just how slow the progress in women’s rights has been in North Carolina.

On May 8, 1913, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Clark was invited to be the keynote speaker at the N.C. Federation of Woman’s Clubs 11th annual state-wide meeting in New Bern. Clark explained that North Carolina law was still largely based on English common law. In his “The Legal Status of Women in N.C.,” lecture Chief Justice Clark did not mince words.

“The legal status of women under the common law may be briefly stated. It was simply that of a slave. A married woman under the common law owned no property, except for the death of her husband. She could make no contracts, not even for necessaires and not even with the consent of her husband. She could not will or deviser her property. Upon her marriage the husband and the wife became one — and that one was the husband. He was master, the wife was a nonentity. The moment she married, he became entitled to all her personal property.”

He went on to point out that a woman, “could not appoint a guardian for her children even when she outlived her husband.”

Boy, I bet that went over well with the ladies. I can hear them now. “What did he just say?” “I think he said we were owned.” “Well, who invited this idiot?” The Chief Justice was speaking to the legal status of women under the law in North Carolina. Actually, Clark was a supporter of women’s rights and supported the suffrage movement to give women the right to vote.

One can’t help but think he intentionally worded his speech to motivate the ladies to action.

In the late 1700s, North Carolina law recognized the right of the husband over the person of his wife to the extent of imprisonment or other correction. The penalty for a wife slaying her husband who was exercising his right of correction was death at the stake. This penalty was abolished in 1793.

In 1819, the right of a divorced woman to property and money was granted.

In 1823, women were exempted from imprisonment for debt.

In 1848, the law was changed to deny the right of a husband to dispose of his wife’s real estate without her consent.

The Code Commission of 1855 substituted imprisonment in place of branding or corporal punishment for women convicted of crimes. However, in 1874 the state Supreme Court recognized a man’s right to discipline his wife and children. A change in the law in 1855 gave women the right to act as executor without bond given by her husband.

North Carolina was firmly opposed to the suffrage movement.

In 1897, the first bill giving women the right to vote in North Carolina failed to pass when the all-male legislature referred it to a committee on insane asylums. One of the leaders in opposition to suffrage was Iredell County’s attorney Harry P. Grier, Sr., who represented Iredell in the state House of Representatives and was the Speaker of the House in 1921.

The Landmark ran an editorial on March 11, 1919, on Representative Grier who “not only led the fight against granting the women the right to vote in municipal elections,” but also “proceeded to tell the ladies that he didn’t approve their style of dress, which he wants them to change before they ask for the ballot.”

The editorial advises Mr. Grier to stop wasting his breath in telling women they do not have the right of suffrage, noting “They believe it is and they’re going to, just as they’re going to wear their clothes the way they want to wear them.” The Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed in the U.S. Congress on June 4, 1919. It was ratified and became law on Aug. 18, 1920 when Tennessee became the 36th state to vote favorably.

North Carolina was opposed and on Aug. 19, 1920, rejected the measure 71 to 41, arguing that women suffrage would threaten the sanctity of the family, states’ rights, and white supremacy. North Carolina did not vote in recognition of the Nineteenth Amendment until 1971. Black women were still denied voting rights in many Southern states until 1965.

Today, women like County Manager Beth Jones and Assistant County Manager Susan Robertson lead Iredell County, Sarah Kirkman is the District Attorney, and Julianne Moore is the county library director.

Originally published in the Statesville Record & Landmark on 4/5/2020.