One hundred years ago, the passage of the 19th Amendment expanded the vote to American women, but Louisiana did not formally ratify the law until 50 years later. The tension between progress and tradition, equality and prejudice in Louisiana was perhaps most keenly felt in New Orleans, where wealthy white women organized to win the vote for themselves but ignored or intentionally neglected the suffrage of women of African descent. After 1920, African American women continued to fight for access to the ballot until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended the discriminatory practices that prevented black Louisianians from exercising their constitutional right to vote.
“Thinking and Agitating,” 1878–1920
The nationwide campaign for women’s suffrage originated at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York. The movement did not gain traction until after Reconstruction in the South, where debates over voting rights could not be separated from questions of race. Despite the 15th Amendment removing race as a barrier to voting, Louisiana repeatedly passed laws limiting the franchise of African Americans at Reconstruction’s end. White suffragists remained wary of another federally mandated law that dictated who could vote in the state. African American women understood women’s suffrage as part of a broader struggle to protect the rights of all black people. In New Orleans, segregated women’s clubs formed the base of suffrage activism.
Entrance gate at St. Anna's Asylum (1930s) by Richard KochThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Overseen by an all-female board, St. Anna’s Asylum provided housing and care for destitute women and children. In 1878, a resident left the asylum $1,000 in her will.
St. Anna's Asylum admission card (1885-1940) by St. Anna's AsylumThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Board members witnessed the recording of the will, but the Court of Probates determined it to be null because women legally could not serve as testamentary witnesses. In her memoir, New Orleans suffragist Caroline Merrick described this revelation as a pivotal event: “The bequest went to the State—and the women went to thinking and agitating.”
Photograph of Caroline Merrick (1866 or 1867) by James A. SheldonThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Galvanized by the injustice she witnessed at St. Anna’s Asylum, Caroline Merrick joined Elizabeth Lyle Saxon in petitioning the Louisiana Constitutional Convention to include women’s suffrage in the 1879 state constitution. In their 400-signature petition, Merrick and others argued that property-owning women faced taxation without representation.
While the convention’s Suffrage Committee supported the petition, the constitution ultimately did not grant women the right to vote. It did, however, include several provisions that limited the number of African American male voters.
World's Industrial Cotton Centennial Exposition souvenir fan (between 1884 and 1885) by Olympe BoisseThe Historic New Orleans Collection
The Woman’s Department at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition offered New Orleanians exposure to the nation’s leading female activists and their ideas on suffrage, education, labor, and temperance. In March 1885, Susan B. Anthony, renowned leader in the women’s suffrage movement, arrived in the city to attend the exposition.
She toured the Woman’s Department, where she addressed a crowd and spoke to several white women’s organizations in town. Caroline Merrick believed that Anthony’s visit “made a permanent impression on public thought.”
Letter from Susan B. Anthony to Caroline Merrick Letter from Susan B. Anthony to Caroline Merrick (September 9, 1885) by Susan B. AnthonyThe Historic New Orleans Collection
When she met Caroline Merrick in New Orleans, Susan B. Anthony found an important ally of women’s suffrage in the South. In a September 1885 letter, Anthony asked Merrick to speak before a congressional committee to prove that the cause was more than “a Northern women’s craze.”
Merrick confirmed this sentiment when she, along with nine other “strong, progressive, and intellectual women,” founded the Portia Club in 1892. The Portia Club was Louisiana’s first women’s suffrage organization.
Photograph of Kate and Jean Gordon, from newspaper clipping (22-Feb-76) by Times-PicayuneThe Historic New Orleans Collection
In 1895, a faction split off from the Portia Club to form the Era (Equal Rights Association) Club. Led by Kate Gordon (left), the Era Club had a much younger membership, including Kate's sister Jean (right), and focused on labor reform and public health as well as women’s suffrage.
In Phillis Wheatley I Proved Intellectual Equality in the Midst of Slavery. (1946-1947) by Elizabeth CatlettThe Historic New Orleans Collection
While progressive in their focus on women’s and children’s rights, the Portia and Era Clubs were staunchly whites-only. African American women in New Orleans, however, created their own organizations, like the Phyllis Wheatley Club. Founded by Sylvanie Williams in 1894, the Phyllis Wheatley Club advocated for female political agency, education, healthcare, and childcare.
Williams and the Phyllis Wheatley Club were some of the earliest, loudest voices highlighting the need to include African American women in discussions of suffrage.
Members of the Portia and Era Clubs spoke at the 1898 Louisiana Constitutional Convention, where delegates negotiated yet another state constitution. While the women’s entreaties for full suffrage were unsuccessful, they did get a small victory when the convention agreed to allow property-owning women to vote on matters of taxation.
Grandfather Clause Section
According to a convention delegate, the 1898 constitution explicitly sought to “establish the supremacy of the white race” through statutes that skirted the 15th Amendment. Laws like the “grandfather clause” essentially disenfranchised African American men whose grandfathers had been enslaved.
Athenaeum (4-Feb-13) by unknownThe Historic New Orleans Collection
In 1903, Kate Gordon, in her capacity as the correspondent secretary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), brought NAWSA’s annual convention to New Orleans. This marked the first time the national organization met in the Deep South. Using the St. Charles Hotel as its headquarters, the convention held most of its events at the Athenaeum at the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Clio Street.
Proceedings of the 35th Annual Convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (1903) by National American Woman Suffrage AssociationThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Newspapers brought up the “Color Question” in their reporting on the convention, forcing convention leaders to address whether NAWSA supported expanding suffrage to women of all races. NAWSA officially endorsed a states’ rights approach to extending the vote to African American women.
Page from the book Progress of a Race (1920) by John William Gibson, James Lawrence Nichols, William Henry Crogman, and J. L. Nichols & CompanyThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Because African American women were not allowed to attend the NAWSA convention, Sylvanie Williams, pictured center, invited Susan B. Anthony and other national suffrage leaders to address the Phyllis Wheatley Club. Williams presented Anthony with a bouquet and delivered this speech.
Williams was to represent the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) at the National Council of Women’s executive meeting in New Orleans, which followed the NAWSA convention. She was forced to decline attendance when prominent local white suffragists threatened to boycott the meeting. Although members of the local Council of Women spoke highly of Williams, they maintained, “We could not possibly let her sit in our presence.”
Williams wrote a letter to the president of the National Council of Women, which was published in The Woman’s Journal, requesting that the NACW’s membership in the council be made a matter of public record. “In justice to the 10,000 intelligent colored women comprising the National Association,” she wrote, “I can do no less. My self-respect demands that I do no more.”
Twelve portraits of prominent New Orleanians Twelve portraits of prominent New Orleanians (between 1905 and 1908) by unknownThe Historic New Orleans Collection
NAWSA’s demurral on the “Color Question” understated the vitriolic debate over African American enfranchisement that a potential women’s suffrage amendment raised in the South. One of New Orleans’s most vocal opponents to the suffrage of black people was Kate Gordon.
In 1913, she founded the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference (SSWSC) with the express goal of giving individual states control over expanding suffrage. Gordon and other white supremacists feared that a federal amendment would extend the vote to black women. Gordon and the SSWSC hoped that African Americans could continue to be denied the vote at the state level.
Woman Suffrage Party sash (ca. 1915) by Woman Suffrage PartyThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Women who disagreed with Gordon’s antifederal-amendment stance, like Sake Meehan, formed the Woman Suffrage Party of Louisiana to fight for suffrage on the state and federal level.
Woman Suffrage Party button (ca. 1915) by Woman Suffrage PartyThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Suffragists who only supported a state amendment joined forces with antisuffragists to defeat ratification of the 19th Amendment in Louisiana in July 1920. But in August, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the “Anthony Amendment,” satisfying the three-quarters requirement for federal ratification. “I am in the position of a woman who has worked for suffrage all her life,” Kate Gordon despaired, “and now that it has come about I do not want it.” But members of the Woman Suffrage Party of Louisiana rejoiced, with Ethel Hutson calling ratification “the most important occasion for women in the history of the country. At last we are American citizens.”
“Much Necessary Work Must Be Done,” 1920–1950
By the mid-1930s, more than a decade after the passage of the 19th Amendment, few African American women in New Orleans could exercise their right to vote. Denied this and other civil rights, they continued to fight against segregation and inequality through their participation in the NAACP, teachers’ unions, civic leagues, and other organizations.
Women of New Orleans flier (probably 1946) by Morrison Women WorkersThe Historic New Orleans Collection
For most white women in the city, the discrimination faced by black New Orleanians remained all but invisible. Their efforts to educate voters, support candidates, and promote political reforms largely unfolded in a segregated space—although some gained experience in interracial cooperation through organizations like the YWCA.
National "NAACP" Convention button (1974) by National Association for the Advancement of Colored PeopleThe Historic New Orleans Collection
After the 19th Amendment passed, the national NAACP recognized “that much necessary work must be done to instruct the new voters,” particularly in the South, where “not only would no effort be made by the white women’s organizations to train colored women voters but also efforts would be made to prevent colored women from voting.”
Founded in 1915, the New Orleans branch of the NAACP served as the city’s primary civil rights organization in the first half of the 20th century.
NAACP Conference program NAACP Conference program (June-July 1929) by National Association for the Advancement of Colored PeopleThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Although men filled most of the NAACP’s leadership positions in Louisiana, women formed the group’s core. Some women did serve as elected officers, like Deborah Johnson Guidry, who was the secretary for the New Orleans branch from 1925 to 1932. Educated at Straight University, Guidry was a teacher, Phyllis Wheatley Club member, community activist, and philanthropist. As secretary, she spoke out against lynching and urged African Americans to pay their poll taxes.
Nathalie Brou poll tax certificate (1926) by Orleans Parish, LouisianaThe Historic New Orleans Collection
First included in the 1879 state constitution, the poll tax was a one-dollar fee required of prospective voters. Come election day, those who could not show the necessary proof of payment were not allowed to vote. Although the rationale for the tax was couched in populist terms—with the collected funds going to the support of public schools—its true intent was disenfranchisement of the poor.
Nathalie Brou poll tax certificate (1927) by Orleans Parish, LouisianaThe Historic New Orleans Collection
The tax was repealed in 1934, one of many reforms initiated by Huey P. Long, but voters were still required to sign a pollbook at the local sheriff’s office. State voter rolls expanded, with the number of registered white women nearly doubling. But African Americans were denied access to pollbooks through a variety of tactics—not least, intimidation. By the time a 1940 law abolished the pollbook requirement, only 897 black Louisianians were registered to vote.
See further details on how legislation affected the number of registered African American voters compared to white voters in Orleans Parish.
Pollbook registration certificate (1934) by Milton J. MischlerThe Historic New Orleans Collection
In an effort to raise awareness about much-needed improvements to black public schools, the New Orleans NAACP encouraged African American teachers, the majority of whom were women, to pay their poll taxes, which supported education. The NAACP presented widespread participation as proof of the black community’s civic engagement. In 1932, 94 percent of African American teachers paid their poll taxes.
Martha Gilmore Robinson (between 1945 and 1958) by Charles Whitfield RichardsThe Historic New Orleans Collection
After working with the Women’s Committee of Louisiana to challenge Huey P. Long’s political rule, Martha Robinson founded the Woman Citizen’s Union (WCU) in 1934. The WCU sought to “educate the woman voter so that she may intelligently bring pressure to bear upon all officials in all civic and political matters.”
The group’s membership consisted of elite white New Orleanians like Robinson herself. In 1942, the WCU officially disbanded to become the New Orleans branch of the League of Women Voters, with Robinson as president.
"Hey, Thinker, It's Time for Action!" political cartoon (8-Dec-45) by Times-PicayuneThe Historic New Orleans Collection
While its roots can be traced to the late 1930s and anti–Huey Long sentiments, the Independent Women’s Organization (IWO) formed out of the campaign to elect deLesseps “Chep” Morrison as mayor in 1946.
Cofounder Rosa Keller Freeman and others worked to increase voter registration and held a March of Brooms down Canal Street. Their efforts paid off when Morrison defeated incumbent Robert Maestri, a Long ally, by 4,000 votes.
Constitution of the Independent Women's Organization Constitution of the Independent Women's Organization (mid-20th century) by Independent Women's OrganizationThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Originally founded as a Democratic, whites-only organization, the IWO did not integrate until the 1960s. By the 1990s, membership had decreased considerably as the Republican Party found a foothold in the South. Despite waning numbers, the IWO still operates today.
“Women . . . Are Going to Participate Like Never Before,” 1950–1970
After WWII, the fight for equality of black New Orleanians entered a new phase of public demonstration and civil disobedience. This, combined with NAACP successes in the legal efforts to end segregation, ushered in the civil rights movement. African American women were at the center of the movement.
Doris Jean Castle (1963) by Times-PicayuneThe Historic New Orleans Collection
White women allies provided support both through their own organizations and interracial groups like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). From renewed efforts to register black voters to desegregating public schools and sit-ins, New Orleans women helped secure passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Lobbying the Louisiana Legislature (1978) by League of Women Voters of Louisiana|League of Women Voters Education FundThe Historic New Orleans Collection
The League of Women Voters of New Orleans (LWVNO) evolved from the WCU in 1942. The nonpartisan LWVNO, which is still active today, worked to register and educate voters about the government, political issues, and public policies. The league produced citizen’s guides on issues like education, fiscal reform, and lobbying.
"League of Women Voters of New Orleans History" "League of Women Voters of New Orleans History" (1985) by Rosa Keller and League of Women Voters of New OrleansThe Historic New Orleans Collection
The national League of Women Voters, formed in 1920, required local branch memberships to be “representative of the community.” Until 1963, however, the LWVNO remained a whites-only organization. Between 1947 and 1963, members—including Emily Blanchard, Rosa Keller, Gladys Cahn, and Mathilde Dreyfous—made attempts to integrate the LWVNO. They succeeded briefly in 1955, only to be thwarted by new laws passed to entrench segregation in the face of the growing civil rights movement.
Voter Registration (2019) by Katrena Jackson Ndang, Raphael Cassimere, Jr., Elephant Quilt, and The Historic New Orleans CollectionThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Flint-Goodridge Hospital of Dillard University (Apr-32) by Charles L. Franck PhotographersThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Leading up to the 1956 Louisiana governor’s race, the NAACP initiated a large, multiorganization voter registration campaign in New Orleans. A cohort of women assisted with the drive to register Black voters, including Ethel Young, president of the New Orleans Parent-Teachers’ Association Council; Gladys Porter Williams and Emily Davis Thomas of the National Association of College Women; and nurses at Flint-Goodridge Hospital.
Moon Landrieu presenting Beautiful Blocks citations (7-Jan-71) by Ralph Uribe and Times-PicayuneThe Historic New Orleans Collection
As a member of the Ninth Ward Civic and Improvement League, Leontine Luke, pictured left, participated in voter registration drives, describing the work as “a marvelous effort.”
The league was originally founded to help black residents of the Ninth Ward register to vote, but it played a significant role in the fight to integrate New Orleans public schools with Luke as its leader from 1956 to 1975.
YWCA building (21-Jan-65) by Franck-Bertacci PhotographersThe Historic New Orleans Collection
In 1954, Katie Whickam, a member of the NAACP and the interracial YWCA, organized a monthlong voter registration drive. To support this effort and because the LWVNO remained an all-white organization, Whickam and other African American women founded the Metropolitan Women’s Voters’ League (MWVL).
The MWVL knocked on doors to promote registration, organized voter education workshops, and concluded its campaign with a public meeting at the YWCA. A Louisiana Weekly article pointed to the MWVL’s work as proof that “women of the community are going to participate like never before.”
View of Tessie Prevost and escorts entering McDonogh 19 with policemen in foreground (Nov-60) by Jules L. CahnThe Historic New Orleans Collection
The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring the principle of “separate but equal” unconstitutional served as a turning point for many New Orleanians. While segregationist politicians passed new laws to obstruct the Supreme Court’s decision, women in organizations including the NAACP and Ninth Ward Civic and Improvement League mobilized behind the school-integration effort.
They petitioned the Orleans Parish School Board to implement the Brown ruling and provided support for the families involved in desegregation.
Letter from Nancy Gabin to Tessie Prevost, Leona Tate, Gail Etienne, and Ruby Bridges (1960) by Nancy GabinThe Historic New Orleans Collection
In 1960, four African American girls—Leona Tate, Gail Etienne, Tessie Prevost, and Ruby Bridges—desegregated two white schools in the Ninth Ward. They faced screaming, violent crowds of white protesters and classrooms emptied of white children. People from all over the nation—including six-year-old Nancy Gabin of Rockport, Massachusetts—wrote letters of support to these brave girls.
Council News: A Wider Horizon--A Broader View (Dec-61) by Greater New Orleans Section, National Council of Jewish WomenThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Following the Brown decision, organizations including the progressive National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), YWCA, IWO, and LWVNO openly supported the integration of New Orleans public schools.
View of woman and pro-desegregation sign (Nov-60) by Jules L. CahnThe Historic New Orleans Collection
To avoid federally mandated public school integration, Governor Jimmie Davis attempted to close the schools. In 1959, Rosa Keller and Gladys Cahn helped found Save Our Schools (SOS) to keep the city’s schools open.
SOS members included women from the NCJW, YWCA, IWO, LWVNO, and the Urban League. They distributed information to challenge segregationists’ school-closure arguments and organized carpools to escort the few remaining white children enrolled in the desegregated William Frantz Elementary School.
CORE-lator, no. 8 CORE-lator, no. 8 (Apr-61) by James Peck, James Farmer, and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)The Historic New Orleans Collection
Students from local colleges, both black and white, established a New Orleans chapter of CORE in the summer of 1960. Using nonviolent, direct-action tactics, the students organized sit-ins and demonstrations at segregated businesses and lunch counters on Canal and Dryades Streets.
New Orleans Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) (2019) by Doratha Smith-Simmons, Don Hubbard, Elephant Quilt, and The Historic New Orleans CollectionThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Oretha Castle Haley speaking into microphone (30-Sep-63) by unknownThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Most of the original founders of CORE in New Orleans were women, including Oretha and Doris Jean Castle; Dodie Smith; Julia Aaron; Sandra Nixon; and Alice, Jean, and Shirley Thompson.
Oretha Castle Haley (13-Feb-73) by Times-PicayuneThe Historic New Orleans Collection
The “strong-willed and dynamic” Oretha Castle became CORE president in 1961, and by 1964 the chapter’s leadership consisted entirely of African American women.
Sit-In Songs Sit-In Songs (1962) by Jimmie McDonald and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)The Historic New Orleans Collection
In addition to demonstrations and sit-ins, New Orleans CORE members participated in the Freedom Rides and organized voter-registration and education campaigns in rural parishes throughout Louisiana.
CORE activists engaged in dangerous work, often experiencing imprisonment and physical violence. Protest songs, sung at marches and in jail cells, provided solace and inspiration.
Music in the Movement (2019) by Doratha Smith-Simmons, Elephant Quilt, and The Historic New Orleans CollectionThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Iris Kelso, Lindy Boggs, Sybil Morial and Wilma Bernard at the LLOGG annual membership banquet (11-May-65) by MisshoreThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Unable to join the still-segregated LWVNO, Sybil Morial founded the Louisiana League of Good Government (LLOGG) in 1963 to improve African American voter registration.
Following the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the integrated women’s group turned toward educating newly registered voters to improve the political literacy of the expanding electorate. The LLOGG was active for more than 40 years before it disbanded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Legacy: Women in Power
By the 1970s, New Orleans women advanced from political organizing to holding elected positions.
In 1971, educator and civil rights activist Dorothy Mae Taylor became the first black woman elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives. She went on to be the first African American woman to hold a state cabinet position and to serve on the New Orleans City Council.
In 1973, Lindy Boggs became the first Louisiana woman elected to Congress. She continued to represent the state until 1991. Both of these women used their positions of power to advocate for women’s rights and racial equality.
"A Commitment to Community" button (between 2004 and 2014) by unknownThe Historic New Orleans Collection
Although they did not agree on the best methods or who should be included, New Orleans women played an important role in the suffrage movement. The passage of the 19th Amendment was a major victory for the movement, but it did not secure access to the ballot for African American women in Jim Crow Louisiana. Many white women, upon receiving the vote in 1920, increased their political participation through going to the polls, creating organizations, and joining political campaigns. As community activists and civil rights leaders, African American women continued to fight for their constitutional right to vote between 1920 and 1965.
By 1970, the majority of registered voters in New Orleans were women.
Today, in the face of voter-suppression measures, “much necessary work” remains to be done to make sure all Americans can exercise their right to the ballot.
Our democracy depends on it.
“Yet She Is Advancing”: New Orleans Women and the Right to Vote, 1878–1970 was assembled by the staff of The Historic New Orleans Collection to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment.
THNOC gratefully acknowledges the generosity of donors Alexander Milne Home School for Girls; Ann Barnes; Mary Aldige Brogden; Joan B. Bostick; Jerome Cushman; the Estate of Iris Kelso; the Estate of Mary Morrison; Aimee Everrett; John Hammond; the children of Eugenie and Joseph Jones: Susan Jones Gundlach, Joseph Merrick Jones Jr., and Eugenie Jones Huger; Lambeth House; Mr. and Mrs. John H. Lawrence; Romnie Leleux and James W. McLaughlin; Mary Morrison; Martha G. Robinson; Mrs. Solis Seiferth; Effie M. Stockton; Robert, Nicole, and Gabrielle Stone; Leona Tate; the Times-Picayune; and Lea Young.
Special thanks also go to Jane McKee for providing the voice of Sylvanie Williams in the recording of Williams's 1903 speech and to civil rights activists Raphael Cassimere, Don Hubbard, Katrena Ndang, and Dodie Smith-Simmons for sharing their stories as part of the NOLA Resistance Oral History Project.