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West Virginia's Suffrage Movement

Women did not obtain the right to vote in West Virginia or nationally until 1920. The original constitution of Virginia allowed only white men who owned property to vote. The property qualification was dropped in the revised 1850 constitution. When West Virginia joined the Union in 1863, its constitution provided for the same voting privileges as Virginia's. With the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870, black men were granted the right to vote, although local laws often prevented them from actually voting.

Some western states and territories allowed women to vote in local elections in the late 1800s. The national women's suffrage movement is usually dated to a convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Historian Anne Wallace Effland dates West Virginia's suffrage movement to the formation of the West Virginia Equal Suffrage Association (WVSEA) in Grafton in 1895, which combined nine smaller clubs into a statewide organization. Within the first year, seven of the nine clubs were dissolved.

In addition to suffrage organizations, other women's groups played an active role in campaigning for a woman's right to vote. Groups such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which lobbied to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol also advocated women's voting rights. The WCTU believed women would elect more virtuous public officials and vote to ban the sale of alcohol, considered to be the source of many domestic problems.

Effland suggests a second wave of interest in suffrage in West Virginia began around 1905. By 1915, suffragists pressured the West Virginia Legislature to such an extent that a referendum of the state's voters was authorized. In November 1916, the all-male electorate decisively rejected women's suffrage. During the World War I years of 1917 and 1918, many suffragists adopted a different strategy. Their support of the war effort was ample proof of their patriotism.

After the war, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was proposed, giving the vote to women. The Constitution requires three-fourths of all states to approve a constitutional amendment before it becomes a law. In February 1920, the West Virginia Legislature met in special session and were lobbied heavily by the state's suffragists, led by Lenna Lowe Yost. On March 3, the House voted for the amendment. In a fifteen to fourteen vote on March 10, the state Senate made West Virginia the thirty-fourth of the thirty-six states needed to ratify the amendment. That summer, Yost became the first women to chair a major party convention at the Republican National Convention, which nominated Warren G. Harding for president.

History of Women in West Virginia

West Virginia History Center

West Virginia Archives and History