“Girls, if you want to vote…”: fraud, condescension, and voting rights in 1919 Nebraska

Anti-suffragists reacted to Nebraska’s 1917 limited suffrage law with a mix of condescension and actual fraud. But it didn’t work.

Newspaper clipping, headline: "Girls, If You Want to Vote, Tell Your Exact Weight, Height, and Worst of All--Age"

Ladies, would you like some condescension to go with those ballots? Anti-suffragists resorted to fraud to derail Nebraska’s 1917 limited suffrage law, but two of the women shown here uncovered the deception and won a court battle. Suffrage workers Katherine Sumney and Grace Richardson checked thousands of signatures to prove their case. Their detective work paid off, and the law went into effect in 1919.

Years later, Richardson compiled the suffrage materials they collected into a set of scrapbooks she donated to History Nebraska. This yellowed clipping from the Omaha Daily Bee, May 28, 1919, is preserved in one of their scrapbooks.

The law allowed Nebraska women to vote in municipal elections and for presidential electors, but not for governor, judges, or other officers provided for in the state constitution. (The law was superseded in 1920 by the 19th Amendment, which granted full suffrage rights to women.) Nebraska law required a voter to give weight, height, age, and other identifying information when registering.

“I am not ashamed to tell you that I am 63, although many take me for 20 years more than my real age,” replied Mrs. Smith (pictured in the center) when the election commissioner asked her age. “Why not just put me down as short, stout, and gray?”

It was a running joke among anti-suffragists that women would not register if they had to give their real age. But the extensive petition fraud showed that powerful interests understood clearly that many women would register to vote, and that they’d inform themselves about candidates and issues before entering the voting booth.

As you will do on November 6—correct, dear reader?

The women shown here—plus many others—devoted years of their lives to the suffrage issue because they understood that the ballot equals power, from the top of the ticket down to the most obscure local races.

The year 2019 marks the centennial of Nebraska’s ratification of the 19th Amendment. We’re planning programming and a special publication to commemorate the event. Stay tuned to learn more (but go vote first)!

 

–David L. Bristow, Editor

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