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Short Chirhart, Ann, fl. 2007. "Review of The Weight of Their Votes: Southern Women and Political Leverage in the 1920s". In Collected Book and Web Reviews (Alexander Street Press, Alexandria, VA, 2005) pp. [N pag] [Bibliographic details]

The Weight of Their Votes: Southern Women and Political Leverage in the 1920s

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The Weight of Their Votes: Southern Women and Political Leverage in the 1920s

By Lorraine Gates Schuyler. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. 336 pp. Cloth $59.95 ISBN 0807857769, Paper $22.50 ISBN 9780807857762).

Reviewed by Ann Short Chirhart, Indiana State University

The extent to which American women shaped national legislation after they gained the right to vote has been debated among historians, some of whom suggest that women's influence was greater before 1920. In an intriguing examination of women voters in the South in the 1920s, Lorraine Gates Schuyler states that women voters made a substantial difference in southern politics and public policy as they exerted their authority as independent voters.

In the presidential election of 1920, many southern women voted for the first time. They confronted a bewildering maze of poll taxes, literacy tests, confusing registration information, and dirty polling places. Some white men, predominantly southern Democrats who had opposed woman suffrage, continued to look for ways to block women from voting while African-American men supported black women as a means to gain equality for their race. Women voters immediately saw ways to improve the voting process by publicizing registration dates, polling places, and assisting other women with literacy tests. They forced men to change the location of polls to more respectable sites, such as schools.

Citizenship schools opened in several southern cities for black and white female voters. Notwithstanding women's objections to some aspects of voting, white women in local chapters of the General Federation of Women's Clubs and League of Women Voters never challenged the poll tax, literacy tests, or the infamous white primary. Rather, white women tended to maintain a limited perspective of government participation similar to white men's.

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The fact that thousands of women registered to vote in southern states forced men in the Democratic and Republican Parties to listen to women and attempt to gain their support. Black and white women informed both parties that they intended to be nonpartisan until they knew where candidates stood on issues they deemed important. Women's organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the National Association of Colored Women, and the League of Women Voters conducted letter-writing campaigns to politicians at the local, state, and national levels regarding reforms such as the Sheppard-Towner Infancy and Maternity Protection Act, school reforms, child labor, and homes for delinquent children. Striving to preserve nonpartisanship, women voters fought to make elected officials accountable for their campaign promises and votes while in office. In fact, the League of Women Voters often kept records on how officials voted on issues so that women could make informed choices.

Although a few women like Viola Ross Napier in Georgia ran for public office, most women preferred to express their political voice through letter-writing campaigns and candidate questionnaires, some of the tactics they had learned before they could vote. This nonpartisan stance meant that both political parties needed to address women's concerns during campaigns. Their efforts resulted in reforms in education, funding for healthcare, the implementation of child labor restrictions, and laws to raise the age of consent for young women. Women's interests as voters tended to focus on healthcare, education, and childcare, concerns that their clubs and organizations concentrated on before 1920. Now they had the ability to push more assertively for implementation of reforms.

African American women gained less from the Nineteenth Amendment. The Republican Party, historically the only voice for black male voters, was shifting to a whites-only policy in the South in the 1920s in an attempt to regain party strength. Black women then turned to the Democrats, few of whom would listen. The 1920s demonstrated the power of southern disfranchisement laws, and white women did little to change this. Even the Sheppard-Towner Act provisions for matching funds from the states favored assistance for white women. Still, black women conducted citizenship schools, worked for municipal reforms, and often tried to form alliances with white women voters. Black women's greatest successes came in the municipal reforms that paved city roads in their neighborhoods, built high schools, and funded homes for delinquent Negro girls. Black women's efforts nonetheless demonstrate African Americans' ceaseless work for equality in southern politics and society. Even the limited success of black women's efforts in urban areas such as Nashville, Atlanta, Memphis, and Richmond indicate shifting demographics that would lead to greater gains in the next few decades.

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Combining white women's successes with black women's work, Schuyler's evidence underscores how the increase in southern urban populations began to change local politics. Able to discuss their concerns at club meetings and in neighborhoods, urban women transformed their influence into public authority. At the same time, little evidence is presented to demonstrate the affect of the Nineteenth Amendment on black and white rural women.

Occasionally, Schuyler overstates the consequence of the Nineteenth Amendment. Determined to show that women changed southern politics, she makes too much of aggregate voter turnout data that, as Schuyler admits, fails to distinguish between men and women voters. In the 1928 presidential election between Republican Herbert Hoover and Democrat Al Smith, Schuyler contends that women voters forced the shift of North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia to the Republican Party. Giving scant attention to additional factors like anti-Catholicism and pervasive support for prohibition in the South, Schuyler contends that Hoover's strategy of wooing white women led to this political shift. No doubt many southern white women voted for Hoover. Yet his victories in southern states suggest that white men voted for Hoover as well. Sections of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky tended to favor Republican candidates for decades before women voted.

Moreover, Schuyler minimizes white women's support for eugenics legislation that included mandatory sterilization and racial integrity laws in some southern states. As she enumerates women's efforts to preserve funding for mother's pensions and infant care, mandate compulsory school attendance, establish schools for delinquent girls, and raise the age for child labor, she fails to account for the consequences of these laws for working-class white families or African-American women. White women who voted supported Jim Crow laws and did nothing to attempt to eliminate the poll tax, a tax that prohibited many white women from voting as well.

Schuyler's work tells more about the articulation of southern women's conservatism than she acknowledges. Women voters worked for reforms, yet many of these preserved the hierarchy that was grounded in localism and evangelical Protestantism. From this perspective, historians may learn about the broader context of southern women's conservatism and their motives for policy changes.

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Ann Short Chirhart is Associate Professor of History at Indiana State University. She is the author of Torches of Light: Georgia Teachers and the Coming of the Modern South and several articles. Currently she is working on a two-volume collection of essays on Georgia women and a study of African-American activism in southern urban areas from 1930 to 1955.

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