Historical Backdrop: The Facts Beneath the Story

Historical Backdrop: The Facts Beneath the Story

Historical Background

I’ve been reading to gain knowledge about the social and political climate in the post war South to understand why the Woman Suffrage movement failed so miserably in South Carolina, even as it began to take root outside of the region in 1913. It’s research for my historical novel, In the Fullness of Time.

If you are a history buff like me, you may enjoy reading my next few blogs, in which I plan to pull together the information I’ve read, to serve as a historical backdrop for my novel that is underway.

The Southern Lady

The antebellum image of the white Southern woman persisted into the post war era. The Southern Lady was seen as a symbol of virtue and family values, a member of the fairer sex, to be sheltered and protected. The woman’s domain was the home, the children, the marriage, the social scene, church and charities. Though some women were in involved in business, the arenas of commerce and politics were controlled by white men.

The Lost Cause

As the Civil War came to an end in bitter defeat for the Confederacy, many Southerners clung to a set of beliefs that came to be known as the Lost Cause. They rationalized the war as a struggle to defend states rights, and argued that  slavery was a benevolent institution. Although there were variations on the narrative, the preservation of the Lost Cause depended on the observance of a white supremacist hierarchy in which politics was the sole domain of white men and in which white women and Negroes were subject to white male authority. Under those circumstances, it is easy to see why the woman suffrage movement was unsuccessful.

Damsel, Villain, and Hero

In its extreme version, the Lost Cause theme played out like a Victorian melodrama, with the white Souther Lady as damsel-in-distress. The role of the villain was played by the black man, whose emancipation from the subjugation of slavery and subsequent enfranchisement under the Reconstruction government, had freed him to roam the countryside and unleash his hostility on his former master. And, what higher form of retribution could there be than the act of sexual violence against the former master’s women?

Enter the hero:  the white Southern male, soldier of the Lost Cause, who gallops to the rescue of the damsel, defending his helpless women at all costs. The hero avenges the honor of his women with the help of a lynch mob. The story ends when the women are returned safely to their home after the villain has been terrorized at gunpoint by the angry mob or hanged. Order is restored and the hero assumes his God-given place at the top of the hierarchy.

Southerners who opposed secession and believed that slavery was wrong, would view the Lost Cause as a myth, or a futile attempt on the part of a defeated people to justify their reasons for entering the war in the first place. But the elements of the melodrama that I have just described are so prevalent in literature and even television dramas about the South, that this Lost Cause mentality appears to have had a lasting influence, regardless of how one might have felt about the war and slavery.

And, it is easy to see how this mindset would have been an almost insurmountable barrier to equal rights for women in my main character’s 1913 world.

Benjamin Ryan Tillman

One of the most vocal advocates of white male supremacy, was larger-than-life Benjamin Tillman from Edgefield County, who took control of the South Carolina Democratic Party and was elected governor in 1890.

He orchestrated a Constitutional Convention in 1895, for the purpose of disenfranchising the black majority who had gained the right to vote under the Reconstruction government, ensuring white rule in the state for the next seventy years. After his second term as governor, he was elected to the US Senate, where he served until his death in 1918.

In the 1870’s, Tillman had been a member of the Sweetwater Saber Club, one of many paramilitary rifle clubs formed by South Carolina landholders to challenge the Reconstruction government. The members became known as “Red Shirts” after the Hamburg Massacre of July 1876, where a group of  riflemen, dressed in red flannel shirts, challenged a black militia and murdered several men whom they had captured.

Redshirts and Redemption

Tillman boasted to his fellow senators that he had taken part in the Hamburg massacre and that “the leading white men of Edgefield” were determined to “seize the first opportunity that the negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the negroes a lesson.”

The violence perpetrated by the Red Shirts forced a breakdown in an election compromise between Democrats and Republicans, which ultimately led to the withdrawal of troops from South Carolina and the end of Reconstruction. Thus began the period referred to as Redemption, or the return of white supremacy and the ascendancy of the Deomcratic Party.

Tillman believed that races were discreet entities and that the Anglo Saxon or Caucasian race was superior to all. “Racial equality” was an oxymoron; one race or another would dominate, and if white men failed to rally together, their households would be invaded or subjugated by hostile forces.

According to Tillman, women were intrinsically unsuited for politics. “the Laws of evolution have differentiated the functions of man and woman and disaster awaits the people which attempts to repeal natural law. ”

Tillman’s Unwritten Law of the South

In his view of the Lost Cause, Tillman criticized the “slaveocracy” and the Bourbon leadership of Wade Hampton III, for perpetuating the image of women as ornaments. He promoted the movement to provide higher education for women, and as governor he pushed through legislation to establish and fund a normal and industrial college for women, Winthrop College. He believed that white women could engage in many types of business, but did not endorse the right for women to vote.

His objection to woman suffrage was intrinsically tied to his belief in white supremacy, which for him hinged upon the right of the white man to be the sole authority over his family and business. For Tillman, the threat of violence and rebellion on the part of the subjugated black male, was ever present. The ultimate fear was black male violence against a white woman.

Tillman championed what he called “the unwritten law of the south—allowing a man to shoot without fear of legal reprisal any man who had sex with his wife or daughters without his permission.”

He told the Senate: “As governor of South Carolina, I proclaimed that, although I had taken the oath of office to support the law and enforce it, I would lead a mob to lynch any man, black or white, who ravished a woman, black or white.”

He told his colleagues, “I have three daughters, but, so help me God, I had rather find either one of them killed by a tiger or a bear [and die a virgin] than to have her crawl to me and tell me the horrid story that she had been robbed of the jewel of her womanhood by a black fiend.” 

Congressional Record and “Mission of Women”

In 1913, Tillman introduced into the Congressional Record Albert Bledsoe’s 1871 article “Mission of Women,” which called on them to “eschew suffrage and devote themselves to “their glory” of “being able to rear and train and educate and mold the future Washingtons, Lees, and Jacksons of the South. By bringing women to level of men, society itself would be overthrown and politics will ultimately destroy her as we know and love her.”

Tillman wrote to Virginia Durant Young, the state’s sole female newspaper editor in 1890, “I had never given much thought to woman suffrage but I believe that few Southern women would want this right as you consider it.” He played upon the danger of politics for women—the idea that the political arena was similar to a battlefield. He expressed concern that through their involvement, women might be physically or morally injured.

To this, Virginia Durant Young responded: “You say politics are too corrupt for women to mix in, but my brothers, may not her coming cleanse away the corruption?”

Ironically, it was a child custody case in 1910, involving Ben Tillman’s granddaughters, that convinced women like Eualie Salley of Aiken to take up the cause of woman’s suffrage, despite the fact that it was considered radical. The story of the Tillman case is a fascinating one, which I will write about in the next blog. However, the relevant facts are as follows:

The Tillman Case

The Tillman’s son B.R., who had become a heavy drinker and gambler, separated from his wife, Lucy Dugas Tillman. Rather than have the mother raise them, B.R. deeded his five-year-old and three-year-old daughters to his father and mother until the time of their twenty-first birthday. South Carolina law at that time allowed the father to deed away his children when determined that he could not care for them himself.

Lucy Tillman, the mother, took her husband to court and sued for custody of the children. As the case involved the transportation of the children across state lines, it was heard by the South Carolina Supreme Court. The case was decided, not on property rights, but on violation of the children’s rights according to the 14th amendment. The court said that since B.R. had declared himself an unfit parent, custody would go to Lucy.

Lucy’s case was a rallying cry for greater gender equality and it became the impetus for the South Carolina law that was passed on February 10, 1910, stating that both father and mother must agree to any deeding away of a child.

Although the law took a step toward child custody rights for women, those with more progressive views objected  to it on the basis that children should not be viewed as property, and they questioned the right of either parent to deed a child away.

The case inspired some women to work for woman suffrage and to organize and recruit other women into equal suffrage leagues. But the public outcry over the case was mostly based on the idea of a mother being separated from her child, rather than as an argument for woman’s rights.

The New York legislature sent a resolution to Senator Tillman and to Martin Ansel, the Governor of South Carolina, declaring that Tillman’s actions were “degrading and insulting to all women.” The resolution was identical to one the National Federation of Women’s Clubs had wanted to send, until some of their members opposed it as an example of “northern women overstepping the bounds of state authority.”

Clearly, men were not the only ones who defended states’ rights.

Many Southern women in South Carolina who worked for the right of women to vote, had no desire to challenge the notion that the man should be the head of the household; and, most took the more traditional view that the issue of suffrage should be resolved at the state level.

South Carolina Equal Suffrage League

In 1917, there were twenty-five chapters of the South Carolina Equal Suffrage League across the state, with 3000 members. At their convention in Charleston that year, Susan Pringle Frost resigned as president of the Charleston Suffrage League to form a branch of the National Women’s Party.

She only attracted a few followers, as the Woman’s Party was considered much too radical in its insistence on suffrage as a national issue. However, the women in South Carolina continued to circulate leaflets and petitions in favor of a suffrage amendment, and they appeared to be hopeful that their cause was strengthening among South Carolina legislators.

The support was insufficient to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment when it came before the South Carolina Legislature in January of 1920, and the suffragists of South Carolina were forced to accept victory from the hands of the Tennessee Legislature, which became the thirty-sixth state to ratify and turn the amendment into law.


Bledsoe, Albert. “The Mission of Women,” printed in the Southern Review, October 1871.
Edgar, Walter, ed. The South Carolina Encyclopedia. USC Press, 2006.
Herald and News (Newberry), January 1, 1906, p. 6.
Kantrowitz, Stephen. Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy. UNC Press, 2000.
Spruill, Littlefield, and Johnson, ed. South Carolina Women: Their Life and Times, UGA Press, 2010.
Times and Democrat, October 11, 1906, p. 8.
Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill. New Women of the New South, New York, Oxford Press, 1993.
Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Commemorative Edition, New York, Oxford Press, 2002. 

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