“There have been others also just as true and devoted to the cause, I wish I could name every one, but with such women consecrating their lives, failure is impossible!” Those are the words of Susan B. Anthony on her 86th birthday, just a few days before her death in 1906. That last bit quickly became the rallying cry of the suffrage movement, perfectly suited to the movement’s long march toward success.
That description, a long march toward success, gives a fairly good picture of the suffrage movement here in West Virginia. Indeed, support for the right of women to vote existed in our state since its beginning. In 1867, Samuel Young of Pocahontas County introduced a resolution on the State Senate floor to grant suffrage to women. It was promptly ignored, though Young introduced it again in 1869. He still lost, but by a smaller margin of only 12-8.
Suffrage was defeated again at the Capitol in 1899, 1902, 1905, 1907, 1909, and 1913, until it was finally approved by the Legislature in 1915. As far as I can tell, both Mason County’s senator and delegate voted in favor. It then went to the people, where it was overwhelmingly failed. Statewide, over 75% voted against suffrage for women. In Mason County, the result was just shy of 70% against.
Those results, while a clear defeat, were expected. Support for women’s suffrage in West Virginia had always been concentrated in the northern reaches of the state, centered around Wheeling and Fairmont. All nine of West Virginia’s original suffrage associations were located in those regions, and Lenna Lowe Yost, the movement’s leader in our state, was from a small town outside of Fairmont.
Coincidentally, those are the same cities that provided the greatest support for statehood, abolitionism, and African-American suffrage. Not that Mason County didn’t support those movements, but our geographic position meant that we were usually divided on these issues. As a general rule of thumb, the industrial towns north of the Kanawha River sided with the Union and supported those movements, while the rural areas south of the Kanawha sided with the Confederacy and did not.
The women’s suffrage movement found even less support, at least based on what little records have survived. It’s certainly possible that there were supporters in the Bend Area, or in the southern end of the county, but any newspaper articles, journals, or letters that would suggest support have been lost or are tucked away in a closet.
What records we do have suggest that most, if not all, of Mason County’s suffragettes and suffra-gents lived in Point Pleasant. Two people in particular stand out. First is Livia Nye Simpson-Poffenbarger, editor of the State Gazette, Point Pleasant’s Republican newspaper. The other is George W. Tippett, editor of the Weekly Register, Point Pleasant’s Democrat newspaper.
Tippett’s view on the matter is clear. As early as 1872, the Register included editorials favorable to women’s suffrage and expressing support for suffrage in Wyoming, the first state to grant it. In 1901, Tippett compiled a list of the 27 states that had granted suffrage in some form or another and ended his piece with “West Virginia should make at least one little step in the direction of civilization upon this question.”
Finally, on the eve of West Virginia’s ratification of the 19th Amendment in March of 1920, Tippett wrote, “Here is hoping that before another twenty-four hours have passed into history, that Senator Bloch (of Wheeling, the tie-breaking vote) shall have arrived in Charleston and that our Legislature swings into the column of the thirty-three states that have already ratified the amendment.”
Poffenbarger, on the other hand, is a bit of a mystery. In 1912, at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, a reporter asked her where she stood on suffrage. She replied, “I am against woman suffrage because the American women do not want it. Every argument points toward its being right, but if the woman doesn’t want it, why discuss it?”
She apparently had a change of heart in the following years, as she was appointed the Republican party’s State Director for the West Virginia Suffrage Campaign in the run-up to West Virginia’s ratification of the 19th Amendment. Unfortunately, neither the surviving issues of the State Gazette nor her 36 volumes of personal papers shed any light on why or when her opinion changed.
One thing, however, is certain. Poffenbarger and Tippett were Mason County’s loudest supporters of women’s suffrage in the years leading up to West Virginia’s ratification of the 19th Amendment on March 10th, 1920.
Information from the Weekly Register, Wheeling Intelligencer, WV Encyclopedia, and Anne Effland’s 1983 thesis entitled “The Woman Suffrage Movement in West Virginia, 1867-1920.”
Tonight’s meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society has been cancelled. The next meeting will be on April 11th at 5 p.m. Location to be announced.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at email@example.com.