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We honor the legacy of the brave women who fought for Progressive reform in Georgia.

Georgia Women’s History

Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries
Nellie Peters Black

2010 marks the 90th Anniversary of ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. Even though the Nineteenth Amendment, known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, became federal law on August 26, 1920, Georgia women could not vote until 1922. In fact, the amendment was not officially ratified and approved by the state legislature until 1970!

Women’s Activism and Suffrage

One of the more distinguishing features of the Progressive movement in Georgia, as nationwide, was the initiative and increasing leadership taken by women, black and white, on a variety of fronts. Most of these were urban-based and middle-class women, eager to move beyond the domestic sphere dictated by Victorian America, who organized and became politically active. White Georgians, such as Helen Dortch Longstreet, Nellie Peters Black, and Julia Flisch, and African Americans, such as Lugenia Burns Hope and Selena Sloan Butler, worked through women’s clubs, neighborhood associations (primarily black), and other charitable and civic organizations to raise consciousness and lobby legislators for the reforms they most ardently supported.

A number of women were active on several fronts, even when those causes may have seemed contradictory in ideological terms. Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas of Augusta, for example, held leadership positions in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in Augusta, and was president of the Georgia Woman Suffrage Association. She crusaded for a state industrial school for girls and for more humane treatment of female prisoners in the state’s jails. Yet she was also a leading proponent of more conservative “Lost Cause” efforts to commemorate the Confederacy and Confederate soldiers. Rebecca Latimer Felton championed prohibition and woman suffrage and attacked the convict lease system, yet she defended cotton mill owners against charges of child labor abuses and defended not only black disfranchisement but lynching as well.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection
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The culmination of women’s efforts was their campaign to win the right to vote. Georgia’s woman suffrage advocates began organizing as early as 1890. National leaders and prominent Progressive reformers like Susan B. Anthony and Jane Addams made supportive appearances in the state, while Rebecca Latimer Felton, Mary Latimer McLendon, Frances Smith Whiteside (Hoke Smith’s sister), and many of the women mentioned above worked to build support among Georgia’s women and the public. Yet they faced formidable opposition from other women, such as Mildred Lewis Rutherford and Dolly Blount Lamar, who headed the Georgia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Pro-suffrage advocates faced a losing battle in a conservative state that was the first in the nation, in 1919, to reject the Nineteenth Amendment. Yet Georgia women finally gained the right to vote with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

The Legacy of Reform

Because it facilitated economic growth, Georgia’s Progressive movement enjoyed the support of businesses, large land owners, and urban interests.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection
Georgia and Alabama Railroad

When reform served a broad public (railroad regulation, highway construction, maximum hours for mill workers, and education) or accomplished moral and civic goals (juvenile justice, prohibition, and abolition of convict leasing), the state was in step with national trends.

It was out of step with the nation (though not the South) in its neglect of some of the poorest segments of society and its rejection of woman suffrage. Sharecroppers lost ground during the Progressive Era despite the fact that farmers’ initiatives before 1900 had set the stage for what came later. The disfranchisement of blacks not only excluded 46 percent of the state’s population from the political system but also condemned many to a segregated underclass. The absence of a two-party system (distinctive to the South) probably diminished the depth and longevity of reform in the state.

Reforms were expensive and depended for their success upon the capacities of government. When Progressivism arrived in Georgia, the state was still in recovery from the human and economic disaster of the Civil War (1861-65). Further, the broadly supported priority of maximizing the power of county units while minimizing government expenses meant that the ad valorem or general property assessment tax (established in the Constitution of 1877), which kept taxes low, was the state’s main generator of revenue. Not until the existence of a program of general taxation (income, gasoline, automobile registration, and the sales tax that began in 1951), and an economy and population to support it could more be done. Progressive-era reform in Georgia was a modest but important first step in that direction.

Progressivism was the first of several major reform movements, and it shared with those later efforts an agenda of social justice, expanded economic opportunity, efficiency in government, and moral reform. Unlike the New Deal of the 1930s and the “Great Society” of the mid-1960s, which were nationwide programs instituted by single presidential administrations (Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s and Lyndon B. Johnson’s respectively), and enacted solely by federal legislation, Progressivism was far more broad-based and less centralized or limited to governmental initiative. The civil rights movement was equally broad-based in the grassroots makeup of its proponents but was more of a single-issue, regionally based movement and was characterized far more by protest and by massive resistance and violent response to that protest. The goals of the civil rights movement were ultimately implemented by congressional legislation but carried out by the initiatives of the federal court judicial system. Much of the movement’s purpose was to undo the restrictions of segregation and disfranchisement that had been imposed on southern African Americans that had once been considered Progressive reforms.

Ultimately, Progressivism’s greatest legacy for Georgians and all Americans—and a central facet of all subsequent reform movements—lay in its underlying assumption that government at all levels could and should take responsibility for guarding the interests and the welfare of certain elements of society and should utilize the powers of legislation and regulation in so doing.

Source: New Georgia Encyclopedia

Related Link: Women’s Suffrage in Georgia

Related Link: Women’s Suffrage Act of Georgia (the historic document)


Paid for by Georgia Women VOTE! Action Fund, 360A Vista Circle | Macon, Ga 31204. Chair and Treasurer, Lauren Benedict.
Not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee.