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Event Focuses On Arkansas’s Role In Women Getting The Right To Vote

A women’s suffrage rally on the steps of the Arkansas state Capitol in 1917 celebrating passage of a bill to allow Arkansas women to vote in primary elections. Gov. Charles Brough can be seen standing in the front row, wearing a black tie and white jacket
Encyclopedia of Arkansas

An event taking place Friday in Helena will delve into the role Arkansas played in helping women get the right to vote in the U.S. The 19th Amendment was adopted in 1920 and the Delta Cultural Center is marking the 100th anniversary with a discussion of the women’s suffrage movement in the state.

Center Curator Drew Ulrich says it’s a complex history that eventually led to Arkansas ratifying the federal amendment. But, as was the case elsewhere in the country, there were racial and economic overtones.

"The suffrage movement was based on upper and middle-class white women in Arkansas’s cities," Ulrich said. "It’s very important to note that throughout the movement, as early as the 1880s when it began here in Arkansas, African-American women remained excluded from participation in these suffrage-oriented organizations in the state. The white status quo opposed expanding black voting rights."

Participation in elections by African-American women would be limited, he said, until federal enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

A decade before the national amendment was ratified, Ulrich said there were unsuccessful efforts to expand the right to vote on a state level.

"Women’s clubs, especially the Political Equality League, had pressed legislators to consider an amendment to the state constitution, however it failed outright in 1911. They tried again in 1915 and it failed on a technicality," Ulrich said.

Gov. Charles Hillman Brough, who served from 1917 to 1921, used his political capital to ensure Arkansas took the steps needed to allow ratification of the federal amendment, Ulrich said.

The impact in Arkansas was immediate, he says. In 1922, two women would be elected to the Arkansas General Assembly. In 1931, when U.S. Sen. Thaddeus Caraway of Arkansas died, his widow Hattie Caraway served the remainder of his term. In 1932 she ran to remain in the office, becoming the first woman to be reelected to a full term in the U.S. Senate, where she remained until 1945.

Friday’s event is a precursor to more discussions this year about the women’s suffrage movement. Next month an exhibit called "1920, an Exceptional Election Year" will open at the Delta Cultural Center and run through the end of 2020.

The event:
100 Years of Arkansas Women’s Suffrace
11:15 a.m.- 1 p.m.
Delta Cultural Center
141 Cherry Street
Helena, AR 72342

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.