"To Make Sissies of American Men":

Anti-Suffrage Propaganda in Alabama, 1919-20

By Alex Colvin, Ph.D., ADAH

“When some historian writes of the present age, of the woman who helped lift humanity one step higher by lifting womanhood to a level of human equality, let the services of the anti who furnished the antagonism on which all progress thrives, be fittingly commemorated.” 

— Pattie Ruffner Jacobs, Birmingham Age-Herald, February 20, 1916 

Alabama suffragists faced opposition to their cause from the outset of their organizing efforts in the 1890s. When they sought state legislation guaranteeing women’s suffrage in 1901 and 1915, the overall sentiment of most Alabama politicians seemed set against the cause. In 1915, State Representative John W. Lapsley from Selma, wrote, “My reason for not favoring [women’s suffrage] is more sentimental than logical—I mean by this, I believe I can make a better argument on the affirmative side, but I would prefer personally that women should not vote.”  

In contrast to their elected officials, Alabama citizens were overwhelmingly indifferent to the cause. Pattie Ruffner Jacobs, a prominent Birmingham suffragist, said that “apathy is the chief obstacle” to obtaining the vote in Alabama. In 1916, an anti-suffrage organization formed in Selma with the slogan “Home Rule, State’s

Selma Times, February 2, 1916.

Rights, and White Supremacy.” It became a statewide association and aligned itself with the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage but was a relatively inactive group. They produced little to no literature against the suffragists, likely because they did not anticipate any success by those seeking to achieve state legislation. It was not until 1919, with the passage of a federal amendment in Congress, that a formidable foe rose against the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association.  

Nina S. Pinckard, Alabama Department of Archives and History

On June 17, 1919, a group of Montgomery women met and formed the Women’s Anti-Ratification League of Alabama. Nina Pinckard, a prominent, white woman, became its first president. She was the great-granddaughter of two men who helped settle Montgomery. Her father was a judge, and she was the great-grandniece of famed South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun. Her family connections gave her an immense influence in Alabama society, which she feared she would lose if women got the right to vote. Pinckard believed that the anti-ratification movement was “a mighty reform” against the “moral threat” of the proposed Nineteenth Amendment.  

The Anti-Ratification League produced a plethora of propaganda pieces and their argument against ratification centered on three main themes: gender, race, and states’ rights. Below are a few samples of the organization’s printed material held at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

In this flier, titled “There are 600,000 White Women in Alabama,” the first argument was that a majority of women did not want the vote. Earlier in the decade, suffragists had presented a petition signed by 10,000 

Alabama women demanding access to the ballot. But, of course, that left an estimated 590,000 women in Alabama who, according to antisuffragists, did not want the vote. The flier continued: “Shall these home-loving women be thrust into a condition that to them will be distasteful and intolerable, in order that the craving for power of a few misguided women shall be satisfied?” This argument underscores traditional notions of “proper white womanhood,” that a woman’s place was not in the political arena, but at home. It also states that voting is a responsibility that “by nature they are unfitted to bear,” thus implying that women who sought the vote were perverting nature. Their desire for “power” rendered them un-ladylike. Beyond this argument of proper femininity, the authors of the flier called on the “Gentlemen” of the legislature for their protection. This played into ideas of masculinity: if they do not protect women from the vote, then they are not really men.

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Alabama Department of Archives and HIstory

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Another propaganda pamphlet entitled “Votes for Colored Women” combined the arguments of race and states’ rights. While the previous flier focused on white women and their place in society, this broadside demonstrates the fear that expanding suffrage would lead to African American women getting the vote. It claimed that one objective of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association was to get African American women to vote in the South. Alluding to a vague Northern plot, it asked, “Why give them an opportunity by ratifying the Susan B. Anthony amendment to create unrest and dissatisfaction among the negro women of the South?” It goes on to declare that when a majority of white women in Alabama want the vote, they should ask for it through state, not federal, legislation. This piece illustrates the fear that the Nineteenth Amendment would result in social and political instability. It would disrupt a racial hierarchy dominant in Alabama since the end of Reconstruction and codified by the 1901 state constitution. At the same time, it underscores the distrust they have for federal legislation and what they perceived as the true intentions of Anthony’s national association.

Alabama Department of Archives and HIstory

The anti-ratification movement in the state culminated in a debate held on July 16, 1919, during a joint session of the 

Alabama legislature to consider the Nineteenth Amendment. A three-hour debate between pro- and anti- suffragists was scheduled, with the time being evenly divided. The suffragists went first and invited a number of qualified speakers—from John C. Anderson, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, to Alabama Equal 

Suffrage Association President Pattie Ruffner Jacobs—to speak on behalf of ratification. They pointed to the benefits of women’s suffrage for the state and assured legislators that this would not make them lose control of their electorate, as the same qualifications for voter registration would disqualify African American women as it did men.  

Pro-suffrage speeches filled their entire allotted time before the legislature. When it was time for the Women’s Anti-Ratification League to take the platform, two male senators stood and said the women would not join the debate in this manner. Instead, they had written a memorial to be read into the record.  

Pattie Ruffner Jacobs, Library of Congress

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Alabama Department of Archives and HIstory

The memorial, once again, claimed to represent a majority of white women in Alabama. It explained that the opponents of the new amendment did not engage in the debate before the state legislators because they wanted to avoid the “unfamiliar and distasteful role of political gladiators.” Furthermore, to debate the issue as if they were the political equals to the legislators was counter to their ultimate desire to remain beyond the political realm. They continued on, reiterating that politics was not a woman’s place, but that a woman’s duty was in “making homes in which Love and Peace and Happiness dwell.” It was the legislators’ masculine responsibility to protect women, the memorial claimed. If the legislature passed the amendment, then “the men of Alabama will have become so changed from that splendid race to whom we have so long looked to stand between us and the rough things of life.” Their memorial also contained a racial argument, saying the amendment was a “device of Northern Abolitionists” to strike down “those barriers which you and your fathers have raised between Anglo-Saxon civilization and those who would mongrelize and corrupt it.” They further reminded the legislators that to vote in favor of ratification would run contrary to the wishes of the revered framers of the state’s 1901 constitution. It would “nullify the work of those wise and patriotic men who have purified the ballot box from the contamination of negro votes.” The theme of states’ rights also appeared in the memorial as they told the legislators to not fall to “shame” and “fear,” but hold on to the “traditions of the South,” which included the principal of “local self government,” so as not to “surrender our great state’s control of her own electorate.”   

 

As legislative chair of the anti-ratification league, Marie Bankhead Owen likely had a hand in crafting this memorial. Much like Pinckard, Owen came from an old and powerful political family. Her father, John H. Bankhead, served in the U.S. Congress for thirty-three years, and her husband, Thomas M. Owen, was the founder and first director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History. When her husband died in 1920, Marie Bankhead Owen became the director and the second woman in Alabama to head a state agency. Supposedly, Owen had supported the idea of women’s suffrage at the state level but joined the Anti-Ratification League because she did not agree with it becoming a federal amendment.  

Montgomery Advertiser, July 17, 1919

The anti-ratification memorial was a brilliant political move. It allowed suffrage opponents a chance to voice their dissension in a passive way that upheld their image of womanhood and proper behavior. The suffragists furthered this point by speaking to the legislators as equals and hissing at the outrageous statements of the memorial, enforcing the image of them as “un-ladylike.” It also placed the full responsibility on the men to make this important 

decision, laying in front of them the notion that to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment would result in racial unrest, 

increased federal power, and the loss of their manhood.  Finally, it proved successful in the following weeks as 

newspapers that merely summarized the speeches of the suffragists could print the memorial in its entirety. Both chambers of the Alabama legislature subsequently voted to reject the Nineteenth Amendment. 

Fresh off their successes at the Alabama legislature, these Montgomery women rebranded their organization into the regional Southern Women’s League for the Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. The only real change in their propaganda was that they expanded its scope nationwide.  For example, in “America When Feminized,” continued to employ gendered arguments. This article argued that women’s suffrage will “make ‘sissies’ of American men” and that the feminization of men would lead to the collapse of society. Namely, if white men lost power to women,

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Alabama Department of Archives and HIstory

they would inevitably lose power to other races and classes and be unable to maintain the status quo. Other pamphlets emphasized race, argued for states’ rights, and even connected women’s suffrage to communism. While their scope changed, their purpose did not: to prevent the requisite thirty-six states from ratifying the amendment and making it the law of the land.  

Nina Pinckard (left) holds a Confederate Battle Flag in front of the Anti-Ratification Exhibition in Nashville, Tennessee. With Pinckard are an unnamed Confederate veteran (center) and Josephine Pearson (right), president of the Tennessee Division of the Anti-Ratification League. Tennessee State Library and Archives

Nina Pinckard, as the president of the newly expanded league, travelled to other states to try to prevent ratification. One newspaper article called it her “crusade,” underscoring the notion that hers was a moral movement. Pinckard’s final trip was to Nashville, Tennessee, where she set up an anti-ratification “exhibition” in a hotel in close proximity to the State House during debate on the amendment. Ultimately, her crusade was a failure, as Tennessee became the thirty-sixth and final state needed to ratify the amendment, thus guaranteeing women the right to vote in the United States.

 

While the anti-ratification movement was ultimately unsuccessful, it is important to examine it for two main reasons: First, it demonstrates that women’s suffrage was not an inevitable thing, but only came after a hard-won victory. Second, understanding the arguments of the anti-suffragists and their success in Alabama underscores the limitations of the wave of the suffrage movement which culminated with ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. For many women in Alabama and throughout the country, race, class, and gender continued to be obstacles in the long journey for equality. 

Alex Colvin, Ph.D., is public programs curator as the Alabama Department of Archives and History and a member of the Alabama Women’s Suffrage Centennial Committee.  

Alabama Women's Suffrage Centennial Committee

624 Washington Avenue

Montgomery, Alabama 36130

alabamawomen100.org​