Suffrage and Mrs. Salley

suffrageThe definition of “suffrage” is the right to vote. Suffrage is most commonly associated with women's right to vote in elections. The struggle for women’s suffrage began in the mid-19th century when various women across the United States started to speak publicly about their intention to be granted voting privileges. Many new states in the West had given women the right to vote from the start. This movement steadily gained momentum at state and local levels. Early in the 20th Century, women marched in parades and raised money to bring attention to the effort.

Suffrage caught the attention of Eulalie Chafee Salley, a resident of Aiken, South Carolina—and the wife of Aiken’s mayor—in the winter of 1909. A famous court case came to light involving Lucy Tillman Dugas, a resident of Edgefield (a town located about 20 miles from Aiken), who lost custody of her two young daughters. While Mrs. Tillman fought an illness, her husband found a loophole in a South Carolina law that allowed him to “deed” their children to his parents: Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman and his wife Sarah.

The Best Dollar Ever Spent

Eulalie was infuriated and deeply concerned, as were thousands of other women across the United States. The fact that children were legally the property of their fathers and that by law their mothers had no rights to them spurred Eulalie to action. At the age of 29, with two small children of her own, she joined the South Carolina Equal Suffrage League (SCESL) by sending a dollar in response to an advertisement she found in a Columbia paper. “That was the best dollar I ever spent,” Eulalie would repeat over and over as she rose through the ranks of the organization.

She attended national conventions and staged outlandish local events that mortified her husband and other conservatives in Aiken. Ultimately, however, Eulalie raised large amounts of money for the advancement of women’s suffrage. She even obtained a real estate license, in part so she could personally fund the cause. In 1919, Eulalie was elected SCESL president.

Finally, in 1920, after receiving ratification of the 36th state, Tennessee, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution passed. It assured: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." It was ratified nationally on August 18, 1920.

Gov SigningRatified in 1979

After that date, each state could ratify it individually by a majority vote of its representatives. The State of South Carolina rejected the amendment in 1920. Despite her disappointment, Eulalie worked steadily to persuade legislatures to pass the Nineteenth Amendment into state law, becoming a prosperous businesswoman in the process. It wasn’t until July 1, 1969, that she was able to witness the fruition of more than a half century of effort. At age 85 she watched over Governor Robert McNair’s shoulder as he finally signed the amendment.

Through steadfast dedication, keeping faith in her dream and using ingenous creativity to bring the cause of women’s rights to the forefront, Eulalie Chaffee Salley had triumphed at last. But the story continued—although the bill was signed in 1969, the paper work was “lost” for the next 10 years, and the bill was not ratified in South Carolina until 1979.