WOW Museum: The Struggle for Women's Suffrage


California | Colorado | Hawaii
Kansas | New Mexico | Oregon
Texas | Utah | Washington | Wyoming


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.

Texas, The Petticoat Lobby: Texas Suffrage and Southern Politics

Polltax Poster

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.

Black Sharecroppers 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.

Minnie Fisher Cunningham 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.

Minnie Fisher Cunningham 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.