Texas voters are celebrating a special but largely unknown anniversary this week. On July 27, 1918, women were able to vote in Texas for the first time! My Lavaca County great-grandmother, Elizabeth Pagel Heisler, was 53 that year. Can you imagine having the opportunity to vote for the first time at that age?
The story of this special day has many surprising twists and super-human elements. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the culmination of the women's suffrage movement in the United States, was not ratified until August of 1920 when Tennessee became the 36th state to pass the amendment. Texas was the ninth state to ratify the 19th Amendment, acting to do so on June 28, 1919. So why were women allowed to vote in Texas a year earlier?
Across the United States, thousands of women worked for decades at state and national levels to secure the right to vote for women. In Texas, voting rights for women was brought up in the State Legislature repeatedly from 1868 until 1918, defeated each time. At the time, many considered women voting to be a threat to social order. It was changing times and women’s support for the war effort in WWI that softened opposition to women’s suffrage.
It was a crisis at the state level and an opportunity associated with laws governing primary elections in the state that opened the door for the right to vote for women in Texas. After Governor James Ferguson was impeached and Lt. Governor William Hobby, a friend of women’s suffrage, became Governor in 1917, Representative James Metcalf of San Angelo introduced a bill at a special session of the Texas Legislature that gave Texas women the right to vote in primary elections. This bill passed and was signed into law by Governor Hobby in 1918. An amazing coalition of groups pulled together to register 386,000 women to vote in just seventeen days! These groups included the predecessors to the current day League of Women Voters of Texas, Texas PTA, Texas AFL-CIO, State Federation of Women’s Clubs, Press Women of Texas, 4-H Clubs, and the Texas Nurses Association.
This story of how women first gained the right to vote in Texas is an important reminder that voting is priceless treasure hard won by our fore mothers in Texas. In Lavaca County, a very high percentage of those eligible to vote are registered to vote, so it is surprising that the percentages of those who actually vote is not higher. Our newly formed League of Women Voters of Lavaca County is eager to help Lavaca County set the standard for great voter participation among Texas counties. We hope you will join us in that effort!