During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Mississippi women, like their counterparts across the country, began to work to obtain the right to vote. The groundwork for this activism was laid earlier in the 1800s, as women increasingly chafed against domestic social expectations, championing social issues such as temperance and mission work and receiving encouragement from their churches for such efforts. Though the religious denominations deplored political agitation by women, their involvement in these earlier movements helped prepare many women to take part in a larger national dialogue that encompassed not only the evils of alcohol but also prison reform, child labor laws, the dangers of venereal disease, and eventually women’s political rights.
Literary and social clubs began to develop around the state and to encourage members to think about the major issues facing women. During the meetings of Greenville’s Hypatia Club, for example, Nellie Nugent Somerville began to speak of the problems women encountered by not having control of their bodies and thus their own fertility.
One of the most important organizations that prepared women for a more vocal role in government was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which had 250,000 members nationwide. The organization argued that women needed to vote to protect the family, allowing more conservative women to join the fight for suffrage.
On 5 May 1897 a group of women met in Meridian to form the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA). The organization promoted suffrage via speeches, letters to newspapers and Mississippi congressmen, and participation in local parades and fairs. The first elected officers included president Nellie Nugent Somerville, vice president Belle Kearney, and corresponding secretary Lily Wilkinson Thompson. During its early years the organization suffered from disagreements about the best way to achieve its goals. Several of the members were staunch supporters of states’ rights and preferred to have the Mississippi legislature grant women the vote, while others believed that a federal amendment was the only way that Mississippi women would gain suffrage. Moreover, Mississippi’s suffragists felt the need to keep themselves at arm’s length from their northern counterparts to avoid alienating the state’s conservative white male electorate. As a result, the MWSA created most of the publications it distributed, although it also sent copies of a moderate national publication, the Woman’s Journal, to all members of the state legislature for three months in 1913.
In 1899 Somerville resigned as the MWSA’s president for health reasons, and Kearney took over. Since she was often out of the state on lecturing tours, the MWSA did little until 1906, when Kearney returned. For the next decade MWSA members worked to promote their campaign. They argued that it was their duty as mothers to prepare good citizens in the form of their sons and that the ballot was a vital tool for accomplishing this goal. In response to the argument that only men were fit for suffrage as a consequence of their status as workers, the activists demonstrated how many women worked outside the home in schools or in factories. The MWSA largely disapproved of picketing and other techniques used by some suffragists in the North but made its presence known at local fairs by participating in parades and operating booths. In addition, nationally known speakers such as Dr. Anna Howard Shaw visited the state to address both men and women. When some opponents of woman suffrage argued that it would enfranchise thousands of African American women, Mississippi’s white suffragists assured the legislature that the same methods used to prevent African American men from voting would also ban African American women.
When the US House of Representatives passed the Nineteenth Amendment in 1918, only Mississippi and South Carolina solidly opposed it. Mississippi was also not among the thirty-six states that ratified the amendment before it went into effect: in fact, Mississippi did not ratify the Nineteenth Amendment until 1984, when it became the last state to do so.
In 1923, just three years after women received the right to vote, Kearney was elected to the State Senate. She continued to work for reform, especially in the areas of Prohibition and public health, publishing Conqueror or Conquered: The Sex Challenge Answered, a book that highlighted the widespread effects of venereal disease. Somerville also won a seat in the state legislature and remained a staunch supporter of Prohibition. They and other women who had been active on behalf of suffrage turned their attention to other issues, such as equal pay for equal work, raising the age of consent, prison reform, and child labor.
- Anne Firor Scott, The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930 (1970)
- Marjorie Julian Spruill, New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States (1993)
- Martha H. Swain, Elizabeth Anne Payne, Marjorie Julian Spruill, and Susan Ditto, eds., Mississippi Women: Their Histories, Their Lives (2003)
- Lily Thompson Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi