Making Her Voice Heard:
Frances Griffin's Speech before the 1901 Constitutional Convention
By Scotty E. Kirkland, ADAH
“Rights are not measured by the number who want them. So long as there is one woman who wants the right to vote, she is, according to the spirit of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, entitled to that right.”
— Frances Griffin, before the delegates to the 1901 constitutional convention
On Monday, June 10, 1901, Frances Griffin became the first woman to address an Alabama lawmaking body. By the time of her speech to the delegates of Alabama’s 1901 constitutional convention, Griffin had devoted
nearly two decades to the kindred Progressive Era causes of temperance and women’s suffrage. Her speech marked a new era of direct involvement in the political arena by Alabama women.
Born in Wetumpka in 1843, Emera Frances Griffin graduated from the Judson Female Institute in 1860. For most of her career as a schoolteacher, she worked and lived in Montgomery. Griffin left the classroom in the mid-1880s and took up the cause of temperance—the prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcohol. She became a paid organizer and speaker for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Her undeniable oratorical skills, perfectly joined with a quick wit and expansive knowledge of history, literature, and world events, made her a sought-after speaker. Griffin traveled throughout the South giving speeches on the subject of temperance. “Miss Griffin is a speaker of great force, with an earnestness of manner that impresses every hearer,” wrote one reviewer. “She has her mind and heart in her work, and is doing a vast deal of good wherever she lectures.”
Frances Griffin, Alabama Department of Archives and History
Griffin’s temperance work soon led her to advocate publicly for women’s suffrage. The increased political power that came from being a voter, Griffin felt, was necessary to advancing progressive causes. In 1892, she started
a suffrage organization at her home in Verbena—the second in the state after New Decatur’s
association, which was founded in 1890. These two groups joined together in 1893 to form the Alabama Woman Suffrage Association, which became an affiliate of Susan B. Anthony’s National
American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
Library of Congress
The work was difficult. Many Alabama women who had joined important social clubs and had championed temperance in great numbers, still felt suffrage too radical a proposal. Throughout much of the decade, Frances Griffin was among a small group of native Alabamians working to dispel such notions. She served as the first secretary of the statewide group and as its president after 1897. By the end of the decade, there were six Alabama chapters.
The Knoxville Sentinel, May 19, 1897.
The NAWSA wasted little time putting Frances Griffin on the lecture circuit, sending her throughout Georgia, Arkansas, and Tennessee. A Knoxville newspaper called Griffin’s very presence there in 1897 “the most radical step taken toward the advancement of woman’s cause in this section.” The following year, she joined other prominent suffragists including Carrie Chapman Catt and Kentucky’s Laura Clay in New Orleans, lobbying delegates of Louisiana’s constitutional convention to adopt women’s suffrage. In 1899, organizers of the thirty-first annual woman’s suffrage convention invited Frances Griffin to give one of the keynote addresses. Seventy-nine-year-old Susan B. Anthony herself introduced Griffin at the Grand Rapids, Michigan, event. Back in Alabama’s capital city, the Montgomery Advertiser called her speech “electrifying.”
Susan B. Anthony, Library of Congress
In December 1900, the Alabama legislature
approved a bill calling for a constitutional convention of its own. After voters signaled their approval in an April referendum, Griffin began working to secure a suffrage clause for the women of the Yellowhammer State. To be sure, they faced an uphill battle. Only a few of the 155 delegates
who arrived at the State Capitol in late May 1901 supported women’s suffrage. Their chief aim was to enshrine white supremacy, and their main tool for the task was disfranchisement, a wholesale,
methodical stripping away of the vote from black and poor white Alabama men. In this climate of shrinking suffrage rights, few gave serious
Alabama House Chamber, location of the convention. Alabama Department of Archives and History
consideration whatsoever to the idea of expanding the electorate to include women. Still, Griffin persisted. She lobbied the delegates individually and gave speeches around Montgomery.
Selma delegate Benjamin Craig offered a number of women’s suffrage amendments during the convention and arranged for Griffin to speak before the group. Fifty-two of the convention delegates failed to report to the capitol building to hear Griffin speak on the sixteenth day of the convention. More than a dozen members of the influential committee on suffrage and elections walked out before Griffin began. Thomas C. Coleman, the Greene County delegate who chaired the committee, said they had more pressing concerns. Attempts to deprive Griffin of an audience were foiled, however. The viewing gallery above the convention floor was packed with women, many clad in white. Owing to the large number of absent delegates, ushers allowed some members of the swollen crowd to stand in the back of the chamber as well.
Benjamin Craig, Alabama Department of Archives and History
Early sketch of 1901 Constitution panel at Alabama Bicentennial Park. Caleb O’Conner, artist.
Justice was the simple foundation upon which Griffin built her historic speech. Government derived its powers from the consent of those it governed, she reasoned. “If a woman wishes to build a house, she is taxed for every nail that goes in it; every article that furnishes it; every garment she wears in it. Government looks after its women and interferes with them exactly as it interferes with men.”
Griffin methodically refuted many of the traditional excuses against women’s suffrage, first that they wielded a
great “silent influence” and did not need access to the ballot. She asked if delegates had ever heard of a man voluntarily giving up his right to vote to exert more influence. “The man without a vote is a subject, not a citizen,” she said. “The woman without a vote is an inferior, not an equal.” She ably reversed the frequent claim that women would view the ballot as onerous. Instead of increasing their burden, it would lessen it, she argued, since it would give to women real political power to bring about change. “Disfranchisement is no great kindness to women,” she said. “It is cruelly unjust and makes their burdens heavier.”
1901 Constitution panel at Alabama Bicentennial Park
Griffin conceded that there were many Alabama women who did not want the ballot for themselves, just as there were those who once did not want access to the halls of higher education. “Rights are not measured by the number who want them,” she reasoned, and referenced the packed gallery above her as proof that many Alabama women wanted the vote.
While her characteristic wit helped inject occasional moments of levity into the speech, drawing both the laughter and applause of delegates, Griffin was still before a mostly indifferent audience. Near the end of her speech she asserted that women needed the ballot because they were inherently different from men, that male politicians could never fully represent the interests of Alabama women. To continue was unjust and unfair. “So long as laws affect both men and women, men and women together should make those laws.” The upper gallery erupted in applause in response to this statement, but the delegates sat in silence, to which Griffin quipped, “Now why don’t you applaud that?”
Griffin told the delegates that she lived in a house with her widowed sisters and a young niece. For this household of taxpaying women, their only access to the ballot box came from their hired hand, an African American man with no formal education. “I understand that my gardener is going to be disfranchised,” she said, acknowledging the inevitable outcome of the convention. What Griffin asked of the delegates then was simple: to transfer the franchise from the state’s black men to its white females. “And now, as you are taking that one prop from under us, we ask you to at least give us the leavings,” she stated.
The chamber greeted the conclusion of Griffin’s speech with prolonged applause. Even opponents of women’s suffrage begrudgingly acknowledged that no other person could have made a better case for the women of the state. Still, her eloquence failed to sway the convention. None of the
Frances Griffin, Alabama Department of Archives and History
Detail of Article VIIII of the 1901 constitution. Alabama Department of Archives and History
proposed amendments granting the vote to Alabama women passed. Such was the lot of early suffragists in Alabama. In the wake of the convention, activities of the Alabama Woman Suffrage Association began to wane. But Griffin herself continued on, focusing greater attention on matters relating to temperance and public education.
She viewed these modest steps of advancement as important, and they were. In the decade between her convention speech and the establishment of the next statewide suffrage organization, the public role of Alabama women expanded greatly. Throughout much of this
time, Griffin continued lecturing and debating women’s suffrage
and making her voice heard. Her two final public events before her death in June 1917 were an address to a statewide meeting of the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association and a lecture to a group of new Judson College graduates, encouraging a younger generation of women to fight for their just rights as full citizens.
Library of Congress
Scotty E. Kirkland is exhibits, publications, and programs coordinator at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.