The suffrage movement on the campus of the State Normal and Industrial College (now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro) had its start in the early years of the college’s history. It reflected the larger interest in the vote for women, which was spreading throughout the state. The North Carolina Woman’s Suffrage Association was founded in 1894, only two years after the school first opened its doors. Initially, the State Normal students were against the prospect of the vote for women. In 1909, the Adelphian Literary Society held a debate on the merits of suffrage, after which the students agreed that the side speaking against the vote had won the day.
Interestingly, the first “recorded” pro-suffrage statement on campus was found in a 1914 State Normal Magazine editorial. In the article, the student author mentions that reading about current events in newspapers would be a necessity when women finally got the vote. This editorial would have been very relevant to the girls of the State Normal as their young political science professor, Harriet Elliott, required them to read the newspaper every day in lieu of a textbook. Many alumnae credited Elliott with helping them gain a fundamental understanding of the suffrage movement and its relationship to the political and economic climate of the day.
The first true suffrage event on campus took place in 1915 when 250 students participated in a march during their regular afternoon “walking period.” This march, led by members of the orchestra and girls with makeshift instruments, paraded down College Avenue with “Votes for Women” banners flying high. The protest ended at Spencer Dormitory where the girls listened to speeches on women’s rights given by their fellow students.
The growing interest in suffrage on campus continued with a rather surprising incident that took place during the 1915 commencement exercises. The girls refused to applaud the speaker, Governor Locke Craig, because he spoke against women’s suffrage. It was only after Governor Craig conceded that he would support women’s right to vote if that is what they desired, that he received a positive response from his audience. The students were not always so passive in the way they showed their displeasure toward legislators who spoke against suffrage at the college. An alumna from the class of 1915 recalled that after one particularly offensive speech during which the speaker suggested that women leave the vote to men, the students created an effigy of the unfortunate legislator and burned it in Peabody Park. The same year, the students formed a suffrage group on campus, which is thought to have been the first of its kind in the South.
In 1918, 575 of the 650 students on campus signed a petition to be sent to their senators advocating women’s suffrage. This petition received a great deal of publicity resulting in one state paper commenting, “The action of these young women have had much to do with bringing the North Carolina State Normal College into prominence as representatively progressive and reflecting Twentieth century ideals and revised standards.” Several months later, Julius Foust, president of the State Normal, wrote to Senator Lee Overman supporting the movement, reflecting the sentiment of most of the faculty.
During these politically active years, the State Normal was fortunate to have many strong suffrage advocates speak to the student body such as Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in the United States Congress and Dr. Anna Shaw, president of the National American Suffrage Association and personal friend of Harriet Elliott. Shaw spoke at the school on three occasions between 1917 – 1919. She felt that the spirit of the Normal students was “inspiring and unique.” Her connection to the State Normal was such that she would ultimately leave the college scholarship funds in her will. The college would reciprocate by naming a dormitory in Shaw’s honor.
When it became apparent that achieving the right to vote was imminent, Harriet Elliott expanded her efforts to inform the women of North Carolina of their rights. In June of 1920, she offered “A School of Citizenship for Women” which was open not only to her students, but to “all the women of North Carolina.” The program included lectures and round table discussions regarding the government’s structure and purpose. On August 18, 1920, the requisite number of states passed legislation ratifying the 19th Amendment, officially granting women the right to vote. Just months before, the State Normal and Industrial College had become the North Carolina College for Women. When the vote came – the students were prepared!
Article by Kathelene McCarty Smith