When it came to politics as well as geography, Texas women found themselves on the treacherous
border between the West and the South. In the end, Texas bucked the trend in both regions, lagging
behind with the last three states to pass suffrage in the West, but charging ahead with the first
four in the South.
The first opportunity to grant women's suffrage failed with the adoption of the state's
Reconstruction Constitution in 1868, a document required of all former Confederate states.
Black rights remained elusive in Texas, despite the 15th Amendment's constitutional requirement
to protect black male suffrage. Efforts to include women failed again in 1875, when African
American males finally won suffrage rights in the state constitution.
By 1900, Texas embraced the ugly face of Jim Crow, legalizing race-based restrictions against
the right to vote, land ownership and economic opportunity for all black Texans. Poll taxes,
grandfather clauses and literacy tests administered ensured that the electorate remained
exclusively white and male. Black and white sharecroppers--among the lowest paid workers in the
nation--worked Texas cotton fields from sunup to sundown. Rebellious Populists in rural Texas
learned quickly from the Ku Klux Klan that any talk of rights for farmers, workers or women of
any color was "subversive."
Four decades after the Civil War, Texas suffragists were still few and far between. Southern
white women seemed reluctant to "join the club" during the time when women's organizations
flourished in all other regions. The Texas Equal Suffrage Association, formed in 1893, gained no
momentum, and suffrage became the butt of cruel jokes.
The feisty "Minnie Fish," Minnie Fisher Cunningham, led the movement from the closet into
mainstream Texas politics in 1914. The West inspired her movement, just as the South had stunted
it. Taking lessons from their sisters in Kansas, California and Colorado, suffragists lobbied
Progressive legislators until they offered a bill to enfranchise women. They spoke into bullhorns
from Model T's and organized public parades, undaunted by taunts or threats to southern womanhood.
A formidable two-thirds legislative majority posed too great a barrier to passage, however, and
the bill was defeated.
By 1917, the campaign to impeach corrupt Governor James E. Ferguson promised a new era of
reform in the state. Cunningham argued that women would "clean house" by voting in primary
elections. Savvy suffragists used back-door lobbying to keep the old guard out of office by
brokering support for reform candidate William P. Hobby, "The Man Whom Good Women Want."
This strategy produced a startling incremental victory: women's right to vote in state primaries.
Female Texans joined Arkansans and Oklahomans as the first women allowed in polling places
in the South, when they won "primary suffrage" in 1918. Although Cunningham's Texas Suffrage
Association shunned black club women when they applied for membership, Houston's African
American women fought back. They sued registrars in Houston and won the South's earliest
legal protections of their newly won right to register and vote in the primaries. White
suffragists in San Antonio were more inclusive. Voter registration appeals to the city's
large body of suffragistas and their Mexican American male supporters appeared regularly in
the city's Spanish-language newspaper, La Prensa, after 1918.
A contentious referendum campaign for full suffrage in 1919 came up short. The measure
combined the right to vote for women with suffrage for "aliens." Opponents coyly used the
"3 fears" to defeat the measure: fear of black and alien voters, fear of Prohibition and fear
of Progressivism. But all was not lost. Texas lawmakers had endured over five years of "heavy
artillery down in Texas" by Cunningham and the Texas Equal Suffrage Association. These activists
defied the conventional wisdom that "Southern women do not want to vote," and spurred Texas to
join the border states of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee, the only states in all of Dixie to
ratify the 19th Amendment.