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A historic look at Pensacola’s women’s suffrage movement

UWF Historic Trust
A group of women marching

Last month, the National Collaboration for Women’s History Sites dedicated a historic marker for the National Votes for Women Trail outside of the Pensacola Museum of History. The historic building, which once served as city hall, is the founding site of the Pensacola Equal Suffrage League.

As part of the women’s suffrage movement, the Pensacola Equal Suffrage League’s goal was to give women a voice in local and national politics. The organization held bi-weekly meetings and hosted suffrage speakers from across the country.

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“Florida women wanted to remain very women-like,” said Killian O’Donnell, Florida coordinator for the National Votes for Women Trail. “They went through the women’s club, contributing to the community. That exposed them to how legislatures were wrong, and so they were very effective in fighting for the vote.”

The start of the movement

The Florida women’s suffrage movement began in Jacksonville in 1912, later spreading to other cities and towns across the state. By 1914, the first documented equal suffrage speech in Pensacola was given by Edith Owen Stoner, Chairman of Southern Suffrage organizations for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Nearly 100 people, mainly women, attended the speech.

With the help of a few Pensacola women, Stoner circulated a petition to host a representative of the National American Woman Suffrage Association with the purpose of creating a suffrage league within the city. Lavinia Engle, field secretary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, came to Pensacola as the invited speaker and would be vital to the creation of the Pensacola Equal Suffrage League.

Historic marker outside of the Pensacola Museum of History
Hunter Morrison
WUWF Public Media
Historic marker outside of the Pensacola Museum of History

The Pensacola Equal Suffrage League, or PESL for short, was founded on March 23, 1914, after Engle's speech at Pensacola City Hall. That night, the league elected officers, adopted a constitution and enrolled about 45 members. Both women and men were enrolled in the league.

Women organizers of the PESL were some of the most progressive in the south. They were interested in better schools, labor laws, sanitation, and government. By December 1914, Pensacola hosted the state’s first Convention of the Florida Equal Suffrage Association at the San Carlos Hotel.

“All of Pensacola, men and women, the businesses and chamber of commerce, jumped in to roll out the red carpet,” O’Donnell said. “They scheduled the same time as the Women’s Baptist Convention so that they could recruit more people into the movement.”

Colonel Frank Mayes, former owner of the Pensacola Journal (now the Pensacola News Journal), was also an avid suffrage advocate who helped progress the movement locally. He endorsed the PESL and gave the organization an outlet in the newspaper, keeping the issue of women’s suffrage before the public.

One of the Journal’s most notable spreads was the September 7, 1914 “Equal Suffrage Edition.” Edited by local suffragist and reporter Celia Myrover Robinson, the 20-page newspaper highlighted the demand for women’s suffrage and gave insight into what local suffragists were thinking and saying.

“[Mayes] said ‘even if there was one woman who wanted to vote, they should have the legal right,’” O’Donnell said. “[He believed that] women contribute more to this community than any one group.”

Within six months of being founded, the PESL had increased its membership to 113 members. The suffragists began familiarizing themselves with campaign work in preparation for Florida’s fight for the ballot. By 1915, one year after its founding, the PESL was the largest suffragist organization in the state, later being surpassed by the Ocala league.

On March 20, 1915, Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, gave a nearly two-hour address at the Pensacola Opera House. One week later, Ida Crouch-Hazlett, organizer of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, arrived in Pensacola for a three-day series of speeches. Crouch-Hazlett had worked side-by-side with Susan B. Anthony.

The PESL and other leagues throughout the state discussed ways in which they could put pressure on the Florida legislature to seek full suffrage. The state league recommended an amendment that would strike out the word “male” in Section 1, Article VI of the Florida Constitution. The PESL garnered 1,600 signatures for the proposal in just five days, and although the bill was defeated, Florida leagues planned to present more until the state was a suffrage state.

The Pensacola Journal's 'Equal Suffrage Edition'
Killian O’Donnell
National Votes for Women Trail
The Pensacola Journal's 'Equal Suffrage Edition'

By September 1915, the PESL had 300 members, 75 being men. The following month, PESL president Isabel Brosnaham announced the sending of delegates to various suffragist conventions throughout the country, proving the league wanted equal voting rights on both the state and national levels.

'Ladies in Pensacola didn't want to fight'

The suffrage movement also led to the first woman running for political office in the United States. In 1916, Jeannette Rankin was elected as the first woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Likewise, nearly 100 Pensacola women representing business, education, and social interests filled city hall to select a candidate to run for school board, nominating Harriet Nichols Saunders. Although health concerns prevented her from finishing the campaign, Saunders’ running proved to be a step in the right direction for the suffrage movement in Pensacola.

On April 1, 1917, PESL president Minnie Kehoe was invited to the Red Cross headquarters, where she agreed that suffrage league members would lead efforts in the Red Cross movement. Less than a week later, on April 6, the United States formally declared war on Germany, entering the first World War. A meeting was called by the PESL on April 8 to encourage women to join the Women's Defense Corps, a collection of women’s organizations working toward the conservation of resources and the prevention of waste during wartime.

While the PESL had little activity through the remainder of 1917, three women representing the National Women’s Party, a militant wing of suffragists, received an unwelcome reception when they spoke to approximately 100 people in Pensacola that November. Pensacola suffragists did not agree with their tactics, as they preferred taking a more conservative approach to women’s suffrage.

“Ladies [in Pensacola] didn’t want to fight for the vote because they didn’t want to fight,” said O’Donnell. “They wanted their right to have a voice in government, but they didn’t want to fight, so they held teas.”
With the country at war, women in Pensacola and across the country were working jobs previously held by men on the home front. Contributing to the war effort, congressional opposition to women’s suffrage was decreasing. On January 10, 1918, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote, but it failed in the Senate. The measure was reintroduced the following year and passed in both the House and the Senate.

The 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, was officially passed on August 26, 1920, when a minimum of 36 states ratified the amendment. In commemoration of this victory, then Pensacola mayor Frank Dent Sanders issued a proclamation calling on all citizens to join in celebration. On August 28, businesses and residences were decorated for the occasion. At the stroke of noon, whistles and church bells rang out, welcoming the over 25 million newly-freed voters in the United States.

Celia Myrover Robinson wrote of event on August 28.

"The Pensacola Equal Suffrage League were a group of earnest, thoughtful women who recognized the trend of the time and the value of equal citizenship for men and women," she wrote. "They banded together and did their part. Despite prejudice and dogmatic opposition, the recognition of mental equality of women has been won and the power of the ballot placed in her hands. Men and women who worked for years against the popular prejudice of a nation feel a deep and peaceful satisfaction."

Dean DeBolt
UWF Archives and West Florida History Center

September 8 was the first day that voting registration books were open to women in Escambia County. A total of 78 women registered to vote that day. Women were also now allowed to be appointed as deputies to assist in the registration process. PESL president Isabel Brosnaham took office as deputy supervisor of registration.

“It was those objectives of knowing how important the vote was,” O’Donnell said. “It wasn’t some obsolete thing to be afraid of, because back then women were afraid of it and had to educate themselves.”

The work ahead

Although the ratification of the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, years of limitations placed on women’s education and political participation required efforts to get women politically involved. Educational meetings to acquaint women with the election process were held locally. Organizations such as the League of Women Voters also provided women an introduction to politics and political participation.

“I am grateful and proud of the long years of work done by the suffragists,” said Fay Walker, chairman of the League of Women Voters of Pensacola Bay Area 75th Anniversary Committee. “America has benefited greatly from guaranteeing the right of women to vote in the U.S. Constitution. Our citizens may see society moving toward equality, however, the structure of our government acts with a different opinion.”

While 36 states ratified the 19th Amendment upon its passing, Florida was not among one of these states. The state ceremoniously ratified the 19th Amendment on May 13, 1969, nearly 50 years after it was added to the U.S. Constitution. Lingering efforts for women’s equality, such as the fight for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, persist today.

"There is nothing in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights suggesting that women can receive equal protection under the law when compared to men,” Walker said. "The solution would be the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. It would guarantee legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex and require the state to intervene when there is an issue. Our Congress has the power to overrule and change the original ratification deadline."

“Will our current generations of women be willing to do the needed work to achieve equality under the law?”

In the state of Florida, there are 113 historic sites on the National Votes for Women Trail. Pensacola is home to over a dozen of these sites, three of which were nominated to receive a historic marker. A dedication for a marker honoring Celia Myrover Robinson at the site of her former home is expected early next year.

“Our goal is that the story of women’s suffrage will give every American renewed dedication to American democracy and its promise of full equality for all,” O’Donnell said.

For more information about the history of Pensacola’s women’s suffrage movement or the League of Women Voters of Pensacola Bay Area, click here. For more information about the history of Florida’s women’s suffrage movement, click here.

Information about the history of Pensacola’s equal suffrage movement provided by Fay Walker.

Hunter joined WUWF in 2021 as a student reporter.