Madison County Women and the 1901 Constitutional Convention
By Rachel McGough, ADAH
“The consent of the women of Alabama to government affecting their rights and property can only be obtained by giving them the right of suffrage.”
— Petition from Madison County women to the members of the 1901 constitutional convention.
In 1901, delegates from across Alabama gathered to write a new state constitution. Since the end of the Civil War, white Alabamians who joined organizations like the Ku Klux Klan had used violence and intimidation to erode the civil and voting rights of African American men. Delegates to the constitutional convention sought to codify disfranchisement through poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests. When these delegates opened the question of who could vote in Alabama, some women saw this as an early opportunity to petition for their voting rights.
Courtesy of Huntsville-Madison County Public Library
Women’s suffrage organizations emerged in the state as a part of increased female public activism in the final decade of the nineteenth century. Kindred Progressive Era causes like public education and prison reform, regulation of child labor laws, and temperance (which sought to prohibit or limit the sale and consumption of alcohol) drew Alabama women into politics. They felt that the ballot would bring about the increased political power needed to drive public policy debates and reforms. In the 1890s, north Alabama women in New Decatur and Huntsville formed
the state’s first suffrage organizations. By the turn of the century, there were six groups, loosely organized under the banner of the Alabama Woman Suffrage Association. Although theirs was not a large movement, the wealthy, socially active white women who participated in these groups engaged in efforts to inform and educate the public on suffrage.
In late June, a few weeks after delegates to the 1901 constitutional convention gathered in Montgomery to begin their proceedings, a group of twenty-eight women from Madison County submitted a petition asking for voting rights for tax-paying women. These women were all wealthy, white landowners, meaning they all paid property taxes. Their petition referenced the “time-honored”
American creed that “taxation without representation is unjust” and insisted that this principle was “as applicable to the taxation of property of women as of men, and to the government of women as of men.” Their argument made a direct appeal to the delegates’ sense of patriotism, while avoiding the type of gendered arguments
about a woman’s gentle nature and her proper place in society, used both for and against suffrage. This political argument demanded the petitioners’ right to vote not based on their sex, but on their
undeniable status as taxpaying citizens.
The first signatory was Virginia Clay-Clopton (1825-1915). Although not born in Alabama, Clay-Clopton became one of the most well known and respected women in the state by 1901, having traveled in circles of state and national politics for many
years. The well connected Clay-Clopton was
Alabama Department of Archives and History
Alabama governor Henry Watkins Collier, with whom she had lived during her childhood. In 1853, she married Clement Claiborne Clay, who later became a U.S. Senator. During the Civil War, he served as the
Virginia Clay-Clopton, Alabama Department of Archives and History
Confederacy’s special agent to Canada. Virginia Clay-Clopton and her husband were both imprisoned at Fort Monroe, Virginia, on suspicion of being involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. After her release, she gained notoriety for her lobbying efforts to have her husband and Jefferson Davis released. Many vanquished southerners applauded her actions and saw her and her husband as heroes of the Confederate cause.
Following Clay’s death in 1882, she married David Clopton, who was a former Congressman, and an associate justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. After his death a decade later Clay-Clopton became increasingly involved in civic clubs and activism. She was instrumental in the expansion of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) at the state and local level. Her deep connections with the Confederacy made her a lauded figure in the UDC. She was named honorary president for the life of the Alabama chapter. Upon her death, the Huntsville UDC chapter was
renamed in her honor. In addition to her work with the UDC, Clay-Clopton was an ardent suffragist and a founding member of the Huntsville suffrage league. She served as president of the Huntsville group for more than two decades until her death in 1915.
Reuben Chapman, Alabama Department of Archives and History
Among the other prominent signatories of the petition were three daughters of former Alabama governor Reuben Chapman. Ellelee
Chapman Humes (1850-1920), a close friend of Virginia Clay-Clopton, also helped preserve Confederate history and supported women’s suffrage. In 1895, when Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt visited Alabama on their way to the national convention in Atlanta, the two suffrage leaders stayed in Humes’s
home. Humes served as the vice president of the Huntsville suffrage league under Clay-Clopton and was a featured speaker at the 1914 convention of the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association. Humes
also took great interest in the temperance movement. She gave the welcoming speech at the state’s annual convention of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1916. Of the three Chapman sisters,
Humes was the most publicly active and wealthy, and therefore the most prominent across the state.
Alberta Chapman Taylor (1850-1912) was instrumental in the growth of suffrage leagues in northern Alabama. As an active suffragist living in Denver, Colorado, Taylor helped convince Anthony and Catt to visit Alabama, and Huntsville specifically, in 1895. She accompanied the pair of renowned suffragists to the convention in
Huntsville Weekly Democrat, January 20, 1895. Alabama Department of Archives and History
Atlanta, where Taylor served as a Colorado delegate. Taylor returned to live in Huntsville around 1900 and became involved in several clubs with her sister. Taylor’s daughter, also named Alberta (1885-1945), signed the petition as well. The third Chapman sister, Julia Chapman Clanton (1845-1910), was also a member of the Huntsville suffrage association, but in a less prominent role than her two sisters.
The elevated position these women held in society informed the way they chose to appeal for their voting rights. Because of the relative lack of female landownership in Alabama at the time, the petitioners’ choice to focus on their landholding status showed they wanted voting rights for only the wealthiest of women. Further, their substantive involvement in clubs lauding the history of the Confederacy signaled to delegates that they likely had no intention of challenging racially based disfranchisement, a central purpose of the 1901 convention itself.
These Madison County petitioners saw their interests as mostly aligned with those of the delegates in Montgomery. But they were not the onlyAlabama women to see the convention as an opportunity for expanding the franchise. Suffragist Frances Griffin, president of the Alabama Woman Suffrage Association, gave a speech at the convention urging the inclusion of a suffrage clause for white women.
Neither Griffin’s impassioned address at the convention nor the Madison County women’s appeal to patriotism swayed the all-male delegation. The new constitution written by the convention included more voting restrictions than any previous governing document for the state, effectively disfranchising all male black and poor white Alabama men. The constitution, adopted by statewide referendum in November 1901, provided no provisions for women to vote.
Composite image of delegates to the 1901 constitutional convention, Courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library Archives
After the convention, women’s suffrage activism faded in Alabama for a decade. Many of the Madison County women who signed the 1901 petition would not live to see the resurgence of their cause which occurred throughout the state and nation and led ultimately to votes for women.
Alabama Department of Archives and History
Rachel McGough is a research associate at the Alabama Department of Archives and History and a recent graduate of Auburn University.