WOW Museum: The Struggle for Women's Suffrage


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1845-   Texas becomes 28th state.

1893-   Texas Equal Suffrage Association formed.

1896-   Plessy v. Ferguson decision upholds Texas Jim Crow laws, including restrictions on black voting rights.

1914-   Suffrage bill defeated in state legislature.

1917-   Anti-suffrage Governor James P. Ferguson impeached.

1918-   Texas women win the right to vote in state primaries and political conventions.

1919-   Texas legislature ratifies 19th Amendment, the ninth state in the nation to ratify.

Minnie Fisher Cunningham

Minnie Fisher Cunningham, Texas suffragist (1882-1964).
Austin Public Library.

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This feisty, no-nonsense leader of the Texas suffrage movement was known by her supporters and enemies alike as "Minnie Fish." Minnie was a Texas native, born March 19, 1882, in New Waverly, a small farming community. Despite the family's isolated, humble lifestyle, Minnie's mother valued education and self-reliance for women. At the University of Texas in 1901, she became the second woman in Texas to earn a degree in pharmacy, though she gave up her pharmacy career to marry B. J. Cunningham, a handsome Galveston attorney. The childless couple adopted two children and spent the next years busy with family life while the political affairs of the day were kept largely in the background.

By 1913, Cunningham was ready to spring into action. She vehemently opposed the attitude of many southern men, that women should "lift [their] skirts and step out of the dirty mire of politics," and was convinced that Texas women wanted the right to vote. She reorganized the long dormant Galveston Equal Suffrage Association, which soon elected her president. An urgent task loomed before them: to rally support for a suffrage bill in the state legislature. The women politely petitioned legislators, but Cunningham suggested they also go public. She organized flashy parades of women who spoke boldly into bullhorns from their Model Ts. Cunningham's suffragists worked day and night, but their efforts were met with a disappointing defeat of the measure in 1914.

Her next goal was to win women's right to vote in state and local primary elections. Some male political reformers liked Cunningham's idea, believing that women's votes might help them get elected. Cunningham played one political party against another, showing that women could help "clean house" in politics. In 1917, the Texas Legislature passed Cunningham's law granting women the right to vote in primaries. Thus, Texas women joined Arkansans as the first women in the South to enter polling places.

Cunningham and the Texas suffragists soon became known as "petticoat lobbyists" because they exerted so much influence in the legislature, though they still didn't have full voting rights. Texas voters defeated a suffrage referendum in 1919, but Cunningham's persistent lobbying paid off in the state legislature, which ratified the 19th Amendment the next year.

National suffragists recruited Cunningham to Washington, D.C., in 1919 to help win passage of the 19th Amendment. Upon victory in 1920, she became a founding leader of the national League of Women Voters. An unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1928 earned her key appointments in Texas government. From 1932 to 1944, Cunningham headed state agencies for farmers, including the Texas Agricultural Extension Service and the federal Agriculture Adjustment Agency. Her thirst for politics drew her into a run for governor in 1944. Although she lost that race, she worked for two decades as one of the state's most popular Democratic Party activists. Minnie Fisher Cunningham died on December 9, 1964.