VCU Libraries Gallery

Equal Suffrage League of Virginia (ESL), 1909-1920

Members of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, Capitol Square, February 1915
Members of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, in front of the
Washington Monument, Capitol Square, Richmond, February 1915.

They were promoting a women's suffrage film
that was showing in a Richmond theater that week.
VCU_M 9 Box 239 ESL of Va group portrait detail Adele Clark.jpg

Adèle Clark, February 1915

Adèle Clark first learned of the efforts of some Virginia women to organize on behalf of women’s suffrage in the spring of 1909 where she signed a petition for a federal amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

Later that year, on November 20, 1909, Clark and seventeen other women met at the Richmond home of Anne Clay Crenshaw to organize what would become Virginia's largest and most influential women's suffrage organization, the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia (ESL). That house where they met is now called the Crenshaw House and is part of VCU's Monroe Park Campus. Clark was elected recording secretary, a position she held for one year. Soon Nora Houston joined the ESL and they both became active members. Clark became legislative director of the ESL working closely with the league's president, Lila Meade Valentine.    

In this 1964 interview, Clark discussed the first meeting of the ESL and some of its first members in a 1964 interview:

Adèle Clark by Winston Broadfoot, 28, February 1964, (G-0014-2), Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The text of the audio: "Mrs. Dabney Crenshaw [Anne Clay Crenshaw], in whose home we met, was a descendant of Henry Clay's or a collateral descendant of Henry Clay's, and I think the daughter of Cassius Clay of Kentucky. So we had quite a bit of background. Then Ellen Glasgow of Virginia, the author who was so distinguished, had circulated the first suffrage petition in Richmond. Mary Johnston was another member of the early League. Mrs. Charles V. Meredith. Kate and Marian Mead, Mrs. Valentine's sisters, who are living and who might be wonderful people to get some record from, which we can discuss later. The League was organized after a preliminary meeting. We had also some journalists. It seems interesting to me that the newspaperwomen and writers have always been in the vanguard of movements of this sort. There was a Mrs. Alice Tyler who was editor of the woman's page of the [Richmond] Times-Dispatch. Mrs. Valentine was elected President of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, and I have in my records, but don't recall right now, the names of all the Vice Presidents. Mrs. John H. Lewis, whose maiden name was Elizabeth Langer Lewis, who was an aunt of Lady Astor's, was one of our Vice Presidents. She had come down from Lynchburg to attend this meeting and became a very distinguished leader in the suffrage movement. She was quite a wonderful woman. At the meeting Mrs. Tyler was elected Secretary but declined to accept the Secretaryship, because she was afraid she'd lose her position with the Times-Dispatch. Some other lady then was chosen, and she was afraid her husband would object. I was one of the youngest women there and one of the least distinguished; in fact I wasn't particularly distinguished at all, except that I had been active in art work in Richmond. But I didn't have any job and I didn't have any husband, and finally the Secretaryship fell to me [laughter] because of those two accidents."

VCU_M9 B233  ESL permit June 23 1915 rsz.jpg

City of Richmond permit granted to Equal Suffrage League of Virginia allowing them to hold public meetings on the streets and in the parks, June 23, 1915

The ESL became affiliated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which concentrated its efforts on passing the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Like many other southern suffrage groups, the ESL initially focused on passing a state constitutional amendment.

Soon after the ESL organized, members began to distribute literature and to speak out in public for women's suffrage. Working together, Clark and Nora Houston had a unique method of attracting an audience. They would set up easels on Richmond’s downtown street corners and begin drawing with chalk on rolls of paper. Once a crowd gathered, they would begin talking about women's suffrage. In an interview from The Catholic Virginian, December 22, 1967, Clark recalled:

The drawings focused on the theme that women needed the vote in order to have a voice in the conduct of the world. I remember I used the theme of Illumination in one series. I drew sketches showing how from earliest times it had been woman’s job to keep the home lighted – from torches in the caves to Greek lamps and kerosene lamps. Then I showed how when gas and electricity came in, women lost control over lighting of the house to the city and government. The idea was that everything had been taken out of woman’s hands and therefore she needed to vote.

M 9 B 55 Bread and Roses suffrage postcard rsz.jpg

The Equal Suffrage League of Virginia (ESL) produced a range of publications including flyers, pamphlets, postcards, broadsides and other printed matter to advocate women's suffrage and related issues. The "Bread and Roses" suffrage postcard issued in 1912 by the ESL was designed by Clark. 

VCU_M 9 Box 48 Programme ESL Richmond rsz.jpg

"Programme for the Weekly Meetings of the Equal Suffrage League of Richmond," 1914. Click on the image to view the entire program. 

There were local ESL leagues located throughout Virginia. Clark and Houston were active members of the statewide organization and the Richmond ESL branch. Both traveled across the state helping to organize branches and speaking to various groups.

The ESL advocated for more than just women’s suffrage. Clark would later say that they never considered women’s access to the ballot as the end of their work. They routinely spoke out on issues that included supporting the eight-hour work day, the abolishment of child labor, and a call for international peace. 

This program announces the topics and speakers for the Richmond ESL branch's weekly meetings in the early part of 1914. It shows a few of their varied interests. Topics include "Woman Suffrage and Organized Opposition - Liquor Interests, White Slavers and the Anti-Suffragists," "Social Unrest and Woman's Part in It," and "The Spiritual Significance of the Suffrage Movement." Clark spoke on "Women and Legislation." One of the speakers was then Richmond city mayor George Ainslie who talked about city government. 

Members of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, Capitol Square, February 1915

Clark and Houston decorated this World War I era float that was sponsored by the Richmond league of the ESL depicting the Barge of State with Victory at the prow. The image was taken at the Thrift Day Parade held March 23, 1918 in Richmond. According to newspaper reports, over 20,000 people participated and over 100 floats were present at the parade. The image of the float appeared in the April 20, 1918 issue of The Woman Citizen, a journal produced by the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

The “boat” was occupied by children and others in costumes representing “the extensive war service work being done by the League in conservation, Red Cross, Liberty Loan and food production.”

The location of this image is the 100 block of the N. 4th St. directly across the street from the ESL headquarters. Holding the ESL banner are Ida Mae Thompson and Edith Clark Cowles, Clark's sister, both members of the ESL. Ralph Harvie Wormley is dressed as Uncle Sam, with Adeline Harmon Cowles (daughter of Edith Clark Cowles) as Columbia, beside him. In the seat in front of them is Martha Jobson as Democracy.

VCU_M 9 Box 233 ESL broadside ca 1919 map of states and suffrage crop rsz.jpg

"The Rights of the People - Women Are People, Suffrage Victory Map," produced by the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia and the National Association of Woman Suffrage Association, ca. 1919

Resolutions to amend the Virginia constitution to allow women’s suffrage were introduced in the House of Delegates in three consecutive legislative sessions, 1912, 1914, and 1916. While the number of legislators who supported these efforts increased, the bills were never voted out of the House. The ESL decided to give up on the state amendment and throw all their efforts behind the federal one. Clark recalled in the interview for the  Duke University's Southern Oral History Program conducted on February 28, 1964 that “ratifying a federal amendment on suffrage was extremely difficult.”

There was a dear old Confederate soldier, a Mr. Young, in the House of Delegates, who had been one of our staunchest supporters. But when we went to him to ask him to vote for ratification of the amendment, he said, "Ladies, you cannot expect me to vote for anything federal. I still bear in my body a wound I received in Chancellorsville, and I would not vote for the federal government to do anything about the electorate." So we lost him. And of course there was the prejudice that still is evident about federal things in many of the southern states. So Virginia did not ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.

Both houses of the Virginia General Assembly rejected the federal amendment on February 12, 1920. The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on August 20, 1920 when Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to approve it.

Virginia would not ratify the amendment until February 21, 1952.