North Carolina Equal Suffrage Association

Written By North Carolina History Project

During the 1890s, North Carolinians witnessed an era of contested politics.   It was the decade of Fusion politics and the formation of the first suffragette organization in the state.

Since the Seneca Falls Convention held in New York in 1848 and its Declaration of Sentiments and Resolution, women’s rights advocates across the nation demanded that political and civil liberties be granted to women.  As human beings, they, like males, had natural rights and should be able to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.   During the mid-to-late eighteenth century, some states granted women the right to vote.  In 1869, Wyoming became the first to do so.  

Women’s suffrage remained a controversial issue and extremely so in North Carolina.   Although women’s rights advocates asked for national suffrage, it was granted in many states only in municipal elections.  Women’s suffrage sparked controversy, and many politicians wished to ignore it rather than address the issue.   During the latter half of the eighteenth century, women’s suffrage associations formed across the Union; however, one did not form in North Carolina until 1894.   That year, forty-five women and men convened in Buncombe County at the courthouse and established the North Carolina Equal Suffrage Association (NCESA).   

For the first twenty years, NCESA remained almost inactive, but when it became part of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1913, the association became a political influence in the Tar Heel State.  In 1915, NCESA found sponsors to introduce a bill allowing women to be notary publics.  The bill passed both houses, but the state Supreme Court declared it to be an unconstitutional act.   In 1915, NCESA also found two sponsors (one in each house) to introduce an Equal Suffrage Bill.  Even though both houses defeated the bill, NCESA leadership remained optimistic at the 1915 convention.   With a national affiliation, NCESA grew in influence and membership (1,000 by 1917.)  During World War I, when some women’s rights groups participated in militant actions and protested outside the White House and called the President as “Kaiser Wilson,” the NCESA used non-militant tactics.  

Although NCESA played an active role in Tar Heel politics during the wartime era, it never convinced the state legislature to pass a bill granting universal suffrage or even to ratify the 19th Amendment.  In 1920, Tar Heel women obtained suffrage because the necessary number of states (36) had ratified the Amendment and made it part of the U.S. Constitution.  North Carolina, as historian William Powell writes, “in a meaningless action, finally ratified the amendment in 1971.”