On March 7, 1884 a woman named Susan B. Anthony stood before the Senate Select Committee on Woman Suffrage and said, “This is the sixteenth year that we have come before Congress in person, and the nineteenth by petitions. Ever since the war, from the winter of 1865-’66, we have regularly sent up petitions asking for the national protection of the citizen’s right to vote when the citizen happens to be a woman. We are here again for the same purpose.”
A day later on March 8, she appeared before the Judiciary Committee of the United States House of Representatives and said, “We appear before you this morning… to ask that you will, at your earliest convenience, report to the House in favor of the submission of a Sixteenth Amendment to the Legislatures of the several States, that shall prohibit the disfranchisement of citizens of the United States on account of sex.”
Though Anthony’s efforts to have women given full citizenship with the right to vote failed, she continued to work on behalf of the women’s suffrage movement until her death in 1906. Congress finally approved what was known as the “Anthony Amendment” on June 4, 1919. State passage of the Amendment was close with Tennessee casting the deciding vote. The final decision of the Tennessee State Legislature came down to the vote of one twenty-four-year old Harry Burn. Burns, who was carrying in his pocket a letter from his mother urging him “Don’t forget to be a good boy” and “vote for suffrage” surprised observers by voting in favor of the Amendment.
New Zealand became the first modern nation to grant women the right to vote in 1893. Australian women got the right to vote in all federal elections in 1902. Finland gave women voting rights in 1906 and Norway in 1913. Russia gave women the right to vote in 1917 and Canada did the same in 1918. Germany, Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia passed women voting laws in 1919. Susan B. Anthony was recognized for her efforts on behalf of the women’s suffrage movement with the issuing of the Susan B. Anthony dollar between 1979 and 1981. March is now recognized in the United States as Women History Month.
Realization of just what the status of women in Iredell County was before the Nineteenth Amendment was made abundantly clear in a speech by North Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Clark speaking before the North Federation of Women’s Clubs on May 8, 1913. In the “History of the North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs, 1901-1925” by Sallie Southhall Cotton, the author says that the various representatives from Women’s Clubs around the state (including members from the Statesville Women’s Club) were “prepared for information and entertainment.” Clark certainly delivered the information though I don’t know if the good ladies considered it entertainment.
The Chief Justice began by pointing out that under the common law that first governed our state the legal status of women was simply that of a slave. He reminded the ladies that up through the end of the 1700s’ “The husband had the right to imprison his wife, and if in her terror she was driven to take his life, she was guilty of petty treason, as was a slave who took the life of his master, and the penalty as to both was to be burned alive a the stake. This last law was not repealed in N.C. till 1793, and even after the Revolution, in Iredell County a widow was thus “drawn and burned at the stake” for the murder of her husband.”
He then went on to basically give a history of women’s rights here and in other countries and to sum things up by noting that N.C. women had no legal status. Needless to say, this was followed by much discussion among the ladies and soon afterward the North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs was in the thick of the suffrage movement. It should be pointed out that Chief Justice Clark was himself a staunch supporter of a woman’s right to vote hence his escape from the meeting without any physical harm. As to his reference to the burning of a woman in Iredell County at the stake, many local historians have tried to identify this case and the woman involved without success.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
For the Statesville Record and Landmark
June 14, 2007