Opinion // Outlook

Opinion: Suffragist Minnie Fisher Cunningham led Texas women to victory 100 years ago during a pandemic

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which secured women’s right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. I am honored to serve as the chair of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, which Congress created in 2017 to coordinate the nationwide commemoration of this historic moment. The COVID-19 pandemic was sweeping the globe as we entered Women’s History Month in March, so we had to change our plans for this important centennial. In-person celebrations became virtual events. Today, we are lucky to have ways to stay connected while we stay at home.

When the women’s suffrage movement was nearing its climax, Americans faced obstacles similar to what we are facing now. This moment of crisis could have stalled the suffrage movement. But in fact, women’s heroism during this time, including one Texas suffragist, helped turn the tide.

By 1917, generations of American suffragists — the activists who fought for women’s right to vote for 72 years — had already kept the movement alive despite setback after setback. Then, in April 1917, the United States entered a war of unprecedented scale. The following year, a global pandemic reached America.

As men left jobs behind to fight in the war, women took on new roles in the workforce. And as the Spanish flu pandemic spread, female nurses put their own lives at risk to protect the lives of fellow Americans on the frontlines and at home. As women in Texas and across the country answered the call to do their patriotic duty, public opinion swelled in support of granting women the full rights of citizenship.

Some suffragists put their campaigning on hold to focus on the war effort. Others continued their lobbying and protesting, believing that women needed a voice in government now more than ever. When the second wave of the Spanish flu struck in 1918, Americans turned their attention to the health and safety of their communities. Suffragists had built momentum for their cause largely through public meetings and demonstrations. Now, they were unable to gather as lockdown measures were put in place.

The virus hit Texas in September 1918. During the following months, an estimated 2,100 Texans died of Spanish flu, more than one-third of the total deaths of Texans due to World War I. During the pandemic, safety guidelines put forward by local and state officials were similar to today’s recommendations during COVID-19 — avoid crowds, stay inside, wash hands and wear masks. By October 1918, cities across the state were ordering businesses, schools and other public spaces to close, with lockdowns lasting several weeks. Makeshift influenza wards were established on university campuses and military bases.

In June 1919, Congress finally passed the Nineteenth Amendment, sending it to the states for ratification. Texas moved quickly, voting to approve the amendment on June 28, 1919 and becoming the ninth state overall and first state in the South to ratify. This victory came shortly after women in Texas had won the right to vote in primary elections through the political maneuvering of suffragist Minnie Fisher Cunningham, who was born and raised in New Waverly in southern Walker County. While leading the Texas Equal Suffrage Association, Cunningham built a network of 10,000 political organizers across the state. In 1917, there was a movement to impeach Gov. James Ferguson, and Cunningham and the Texas suffragists were eager to organize in support of getting the anti-suffrage governor out of office. That summer, Lt. Gov. William Hobby stepped in as governor. When he was up for re-election, Cunningham and her cohorts offered to use their statewide network to campaign for Hobby if he would push for a law granting women the right to vote in primaries. The strategy was a success. Despite all obstacles, Texas suffragists’ years of brilliant lobbying and grassroots organizing paid off.

We can look to the grit and fortitude of the suffragists to help us find our way during our own challenging times, but only if we know their stories. Women like Cunningham have been unheralded for too long. During this centennial year, we have an unparalleled opportunity to recognize them. The suffragists never quit fighting for democracy. Let’s never quit sharing their stories.

Combs is the chair of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission and the former assistant secretary for policy, management and budget for the U.S. Department of the Interior.