Sharon Silzell

On June 4, 1919, the United States Congress finally passed the Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing women’s right to vote.

Before going into effect, the amendment required ratification by thirty-six states. The Arkansas Assembly had already passed a state suffrage amendment and Governor Brough supported women’s right to vote. The Governor quickly called a special session of the Arkansas legislature and, on July 29 Arkansas became the twelfth state to ratify the nineteenth amendment.

In 1915 Florence Cotnam became the first woman to address the Arkansas State Assembly while in session.

Cotnam was a member of the Political Equality League and the Equal Suffrage Central Committee, organizations that had been lobbying the Assembly for an amendment to the Arkansas constitution guaranteeing a woman’s right to vote in every election alongside men.

After several attempts to get an amendment added to the state constitution, Arkansas suffragists finally won a partial victory in 1917.

The flu pandemic of 1918 hit the suffrage movement hard.

Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, extremely ill with the flu herself, wrote from her sick room, “This new affliction… is presenting a serious new obstacle…We must therefore be prepared for failure.”

The Dec. 15, 1918 Arkansas Gazette attributed the defeat of a proposed Arkansas Constitution, which included a provision for women’s suffrage, to bad weather and “the prevalence of influenza in some districts.”

However, the pandemic helped highlight women’s contributions to society. For instance, in Fayetteville, the University of Arkansas’ infirmary was overflowing with infected soldiers and called for fifty women, with or without medical training, to nurse the sick around the clock.

By Oct. 1918, 12 states had recognized women’s right to vote, but a federal constitutional amendment was defeated in the Senate.

With midterm elections fast approaching, suffragists organized to oust anti-suffrage senators and campaign in support of state referendums enfranchising women. But just days after the Senate defeat, the Spanish flu pandemic swept through the country.

After a decade of near silence on the issue, in January 1910, Little Rock women, Lynn Hemingway, Julia Clarke, Nell Dooley, and Adolphine Fletcher announced in the Arkansas Gazette that a woman’s suffrage meeting was to be held at the YMCA.

They said, “Present inequality and untrue equality will be discussed. Tableaus will be given showing the present state of women, the uses of men, “Women as Lobbyists and Voters,” and “Relations of women and men under suffrage.”

Just a few weeks after its formation, the new women’s suffrage organization in Little Rock was making great progress.

The March 16 , 1911 edition of the Democrat Gazette announced that the Arkansas Constitutional Committee, “overcome by female attractiveness and overpowered by forceful argument,” had “gone down to defeat before a committee of the Political Action League,” and recommended the Assembly move forward on a women’s suffrage amendment to the state constitution.

Rather than marching in the streets, the Arkansans involved in the women's suffrage movement in the 19th century limited their actions to public lectures and educational meetings.

Activities in Jan. 1890 included the regular meeting of the Arkansas Equal Suffrage Association held in downtown Little Rock.

The gathering featured a talk by the Reverend Dr. Gray, who explained that he advocated women's suffrage because the Bible fully endorsed it.

While the collaboration of religious leaders and women activists likely began during the temperance movement, many church leaders became active and enthusiastic supporters of women’s suffrage, at times expressing their support in their sermons.

Just as women’s suffrage in Arkansas was gaining momentum, the movement suffered two debilitating blows.

In 1893, after five years of publication the Woman’s Chronicle was forced to close due to the illness of its founder, Kate Cunningham. In February 1898 Clara McDiarmid, the founder of the Arkansas Equal Suffrage Association, full of optimism, reported to the annual convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association that “There is much suffrage sentiment in our State…I believe there is a good time coming.”

Founded in 1888 as a Temperance newspaper, the Woman’s Chronicle soon became the primary voice of the women’s suffrage movement in Arkansas, and in 1889 began including a section dedicated to “Suffrage News.”

The Chronicle avowed that the “column was open for the discussion of suffrage, pro and con.” This new section of the paper ran announcements for Equal Suffrage Association meetings in Little Rock, as well as news on the suffrage movement across the country and around the world.

In June of 1888, Eureka Springs lawyer and suffragist Lizzie Fyler reported in the National Woman's Journal that the growth of the women's suffrage movement in Arkansas has alarmed some conservative clergymen in Little Rock. 

The Rev. Mr. Carnahan, she said, had recently avowed in a sermon in his Episcopal church, that if the word "obey" were not in the marriage ceremony, he would never marry another couple.

On the same Sunday, the Rev. Mr. Miller in the Southern Methodist pulpit declared, "I am the king in my home. When I cease to be king, I will move west."