1 of 3
In November 1920, Richmond women line up to vote for the first time. The national effort to gain suffrage lasted 72 years. Photo courtesy Valentine History Center.
2 of 3
The Equal Suffrage League orchestrated massive rallies on the steps of the Virginia Capitol. Photo courtesy Valentine History Center.
3 of 3
Lila Meade Valentine, who led the ESL in its statewide campaign for 11 years, died without ever voting. Photo courtesy special collections and archives, VCU James Branch Cabell Library
On Nov. 20, 1909, at 4 p.m. — the hour of tea — an enthusiastic meeting of women was held at the 919 W. Franklin St. home of Anne Clay Crenshaw. Their purpose was to persuade the Virginia legislature to ratify their right to vote and so force an amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Among those present at the creation were social activist Lila Meade Valentine, whose efforts to improve the public-education system and health care for the underprivileged had already earned her a distinctive place in Richmond's history; novelists Mary Johnston and Ellen Glasgow; and artist Adéle Clark and her longtime partner Nora Houston, also an artist. When these women visited Mrs. Crenshaw's house, they did so in an era when merely meeting could've been regarded as subversive.
At that time, four states had given women the vote, however, a total of 36 states was needed to amend the U.S. Constitution.
During the November 1909 meeting, the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia (ESL), counting 18 members, voted itself into existence. Valentine, the ESL's president pro-tem, appointed a constitution and bylaws committee, and the women agreed that a suffrage lecturer ought to come to Richmond to speak. Afterward, the women left by twos and threes to prevent suspicion. Yet, a few days later the society page of the Richmond News-Leader boldly carried an article with the headline, "Virginia Suffrage League Meets at Mrs. Crenshaw's."
Suffragism had arrived in Richmond.
It Hadn't Occurred to Them
The Virginia General Assembly rewrote the state constitution in 1902, excluding male African-Americans from voting ―and also nearly one-third of white males. The revised constitution was so controversial
that the General Assembly didn't submit it to the public for a vote; they just ratified and proclaimed it.
When the Richmond suffragists began their long march to the voting booth in earnest, they initially received either no reply or outright rude responses from state legislators. Virginia's lawmakers thought they'd permanently settled the suffrage question. It hadn't occurred to them that women would want the vote or
that blacks should keep it.
Rutgers College scholar Suzanne Lebsock, author of "A Share of Honour": Virginia Women 1600-1945, remarked in a recent interview, "The general view is that in 1865 slavery was simply replaced by Jim Crow," Lebsock says. "But you have to remember, it took 40 years [after the Civil War's end] for legally mandated racial segregation to take effect. There were a lot of people who had the vote and weren't about to turn around and give it up."
Furthermore, powerful African-American community leaders like Maggie Lena Walker (1867-1934) had to remain fairly quiet on the suffrage question. In a paper on Lila Meade Valentine, historian Sean C.D. Lewis states that racist attitudes existed within the ESL. Valentine, though notably progressive on most important issues of her day, was nonetheless a product of her era.
Lebsock says that for most of the white suffragists, the race question was "a bogus issue." In "A Share of Honour," she wrote, "Suffragists found themselves responding (accurately it turns out) that with the poll tax and restrictions in the 1902 state constitution, black women would register in no greater numbers than black men had."
The suffragists, to their credit, sought not to sling mud with their opponents, but, as Lebsock says, "it is not to their credit that they failed to take a more egalitarian stance."
A Long Siege
Crenshaw also hosted the ESL's second meeting, at which was chosen a six-member board of directors. Valentine was elected president (she'd serve 11 years), Ellen Glasgow got the nod as third vice president and Adéle Clark was named recording secretary.
The ESL invited nationally renowned speaker Dr. Anna Howard Shaw to give a lecture at the Jefferson Hotel. Shaw (1847-1919) was a tireless national spokesperson for women's suffrage and a friend of Susan B. Anthony, the founder of the suffrage movement. Crenshaw ― possibly through her sister Laura ―arranged for Shaw's visit, and Shaw stayed at the Crenshaw house when she came in late January 1910. The speech
was well attended. Lebsock writes that although the ESL's women "expected a long siege, they went to work with high enthusiasm."
They made speeches from elaborately decorated automobiles, the steps of courthouses and even overturned soapboxes. "They canvassed from house to house. They rented booths at county fairs. They held bake sales, both to raise money and to demonstrate their skill at housewifery.
They distributed countless leaflets, supplied suffrage news to the press and put out a newspaper of their own [the Virginia Suffrage News ]."
Within seven years, the ESL numbered 115 chapters throughout Virginia comprising 20,000 members. A major contributor to the spread of the Virginia suffrage movement was a frail, poorly sighted and not naturally gregarious woman connected to several of Richmond's most respected families.
Her name was Lila Meade Valentine.
An Insatiable Curiosity
Lila Meade was born barely two months prior to the fall of Richmond in 1865 as the second daughter of a family of five children. Her rudimentary formal education was nonetheless thought acceptable for a society lady. That wasn't enough for Lila, though, at a time when good Richmond girls weren't supposed to entertain thoughts of college and, furthermore, most universities in the state didn't accept them.
Her voracious curiosity caused her to spend hours in her father's library. She grew tall and brunette, though with a weak eye that in later years caused her to hold a hand over it while reading and gave her terrible headaches. Her pincenez made Valentine look far sterner and more schoolmarmish than she was.
In 1886, Lila Meade married her perfect match, banker, insurance executive and sometime poet Benjamin
Batchelder Valentine. His attitude was: If Lila wants it done, it needs doing, and he never wavered in his support.
Her connection to the Valentines and their intellectual pursuits (she and "B.B." lived for a time in the house that is now the Valentine Museum Richmond History Center) further expanded her understanding of the world.
When her eyes bothered her, B.B. would read to Lila from books, sometimes for hours.
A Fury of Doing
After suffering the tragic loss of a stillborn child, Lila's health was further complicated by subsequent surgery. For recuperation, the Valentines traveled to England, where she became inspired by the strong liberalism of the Gladstone era. In Virginia, she worked for universal education for all, regardless of race or sex.
Under Valentine's four-year presidency, the Richmond Educational Association (REA) introduced kindergarten and vocational training into city schools and advocated for public play- grounds. By speaking about the rats and filth in the city's only high school, she obtained an appropriation of $600,000 to build the downtown John Marshall High School that became a beloved city institution.
The statewide Cooperative Education Association also came out of the REA. She assisted in bringing to Richmond the first racially integrated meeting of the Southern Education Board.
A few years later, at her 101 S. Third St. home (since demolished), the Instructive Visiting Nurses Association (IVNA) was created. Historian Marie Tyler-Mc- Graw wrote in her Richmond history, At the Falls , "The IVNA taught health and nutrition, visited homes with contagious diseases, placed nurses in factories, founded a home for working women, and reached into every corner of Richmond to nurse and nurture."
Valentine's "fury of doing" also included activity in Monumental Episcopal Church and Sheltering Arms Hospital. She wholly committed herself to suffrage. She spoke, usually without notes, to groups whenever occasion presented itself, in drawing rooms, courthouses, lecture halls, the streets and churches, and at colleges, state fairs and farmer's outings. Her name became recognized, though not always her face. Numerous times at some dusty country crossroad gathering, the locals would be waiting for her to speak, expecting "a raucous-voiced Amazon," without realizing she was already standing among them.
Valentine's method of "quiet, educational propaganda" proved effective in organizing, for her time and place.
When she heard of the activities of militant suffragists elsewhere, particularly in Washington, she didn't view them as helpful. Valentine once angrily exclaimed of the extremists, "If they only knew how impossible they are making the accomplishment of our aims!"
However, Valentine's efforts meant she wasn't always welcome.
"Former friends would meet her on the streets without speaking," one writer recalled. "False rumors hung in the air as though arisen from a miasmatic jungle. And an anti-suffrage league was organized to fight her in the open."
Lila Valentine bore it all with tact, courtesy and humor. Scurrilous anti-suffragist letters were regularly printed in the newspapers, and whenever a suffragist spoke, she was usually heckled.
Despite such views in Virginia and elsewhere, the 19th Amendment was proclaimed on Aug. 26, 1920. It had taken 72 years, beginning with the 1848 Woman's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y., through two centuries, 18 presidencies and three wars, for women in the United States to be granted the
right to vote. Virginia didn't go through the official paperwork until 1952. The ESL became the Virginia League of Women Voters in 1920. By then, the recently widowed Lila Valentine was fatally ill. The voting
registrar came to her house to ensure that she was the first woman in Virginia on the list.
Valentine's sickness kept her from the polling place on Election Dat 1920. She physically couldn't exercise the franchise she'd labored so intensely to win.
Dead for an Ideal
Some thought that Valentine's ceaseless crusading hastened her failing health and led to her death at age 54. The News Leader, eulogizing Valentine upon her July 14, 1921, death, titled its recognition, "Dead for an Ideal." The editorialist wrote, "When women's suffrage shall have become an inherited part of the constitution, a new generation will have difficulty in visualizing the difficulties under which the
nineteenth amendment was won. …The opposition may seem as strange to students of 1980 as the long defense against the reform bill of 1832 seems curious to present-day readers."
Valentine died during a sweltering Richmond summer at the old St. Luke's Hospital, then at Harrison and Grace Streets. Monumental Church was filled to capacity for her memorial service, and from there she joined her devoted husband in Hollywood Cemetery.
Novelist Mary Johnston was among those at Monumental Church who spoke emotional tributes. The Times-
Dispatch recorded her describing Valentine's "life of self-sacrifice and the wonders she accomplished, working day and night and never complaining, though in constant pain from physical ailments … Mrs. Valentine's memory will remain forever green."
A League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen
Anne Clay Crenshaw
The perspective of Anne Clay Crenshaw (1859-1945), toward the place of women and their rights was dramatically influenced when as a 19-year-old she experienced her parents' divorce. Mary Jane Clay took her six children from the family's Richmond, Ky., estate, and due to property laws, she received no financial compensation from her philandering husband, Cassius Marcellus Clay.
Anne's older sister Laura Clay became friends with one of Virginia's earliest suffragists, Orra Gray Langhorne (1841-1909) of Lynchburg. Langhorne, who had moved to Kentucky after her husband's death to live near her sister, instructed Clay to handle her willed assets for the future purpose of establishing another suffrage group. The remaining treasury of Langhorne's suffrage association seems to have gone from Laura Clay to sister Anne to the ESL.
Anne Clay worked alongside her sister Laura until she married Spottswood Dabney Crenshaw, a 32-year-old successful Richmond businessman, with whom she moved to Richmond. Crenshaw became involved with Richmond's social set and was the mother of two sons and two daughters. After securing suffragist Dr. Anna Shaw's Jefferson Hotel speech, Crenshaw stepped away from direct participation in the ESL. Her experience with a family dissolved by divorce placed family at the center of her life.
The Crenshaw house is now part of the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University and, of interest to this story, is today VCU's Center for Public Policy; indeed, Mrs. Crenshaw's front parlor serves as the office for frequent political commentator Dr. Robert Holsworth.
Adéle Clark (1882-1983) humorously reflected on her commitment to the suffragist cause in a 1959 interview, "I had an advantage because people thought artists were supposed to be erratic, anyway." One method she and Nora Houston (1883-1942) employed was to set up easels at Broad and Sixth streets. When a sufficient crowd formed to watch the artists paint and draw, the women would speak about suffrage.
Clark, feisty and outspoken, traveled to nearly every state to campaign for women's rights and later served as president of the Virginia League of Women Voters. Clark and Houston formed their own Academy of Fine Arts and were instrumental in creating the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
The 1942 Pulitzer Prize awarded to Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945) for her last novel, In This Our Life, was the capstone for a long career of composing books that rejected nostalgia clogged interpretations of Southern life. She was born into upper-middle-class comfort, but her immersion in the works of liberal political economists and social reformers influenced her to reject being a debutante at 17 and to begin writing about the less privileged. She wrote a book every other year. She and sister Cary Glasgow McCormack "became bound up heart and soul in Woman Suffrage."
Glasgow marched with Mary Johnston and others in other cities and occasionally lectured on suffrage. When in Britain, she met with Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of Woman's Social and Political Union. Glasgow, led by sympathies as strong as those to suffrage, also became active in the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Mary Johnston (1870-1936) was born into a Botetourt County, Va., family of six, and due in part to her delicate health, her education, like many of her contemporaries, grew up in her father's well-stocked library.
After the 1889 death of her mother, Elizabeth, young Mary began writing mostly for money and produced a typical romance novel, Prisoners of Love (1898). But To Have and To Hold (1900) sold briskly and was twice adapted for movies. She wrote 23 books, historical fiction, spiritual fiction and, in Hagar (1913), suffrage fiction. It did not become, as her publisher hoped it would, the suffragist movement's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Johnston became the chair of the ESL's legislative committee, and she lent her talents to writing pamphlets; she also marched in New York City and Washington, D.C., and lectured about women's rights, literature and spirituality.