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“The Right to a Voice in the Affairs of their Own Government”: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in El Paso An Online Exhibit by the C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department

August 18, 2020 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which states that "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." Although the American women’s suffrage movement officially began at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the movement in El Paso did not formally organize until 1915. In El Paso, the two main pro-suffrage organizations were the El Paso Equal Franchise League and the El Paso Negro Woman’s Civic and Equal Franchise League.

Pro-suffrage booklet from August 1919. Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.

This online exhibit features archival materials from the C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department of the UTEP Library. These sources help tell the story of the women's suffrage movement in El Paso and the early history of the El Paso League of Women Voters.

Minutes of the El Paso Equal Franchise League's first meeting, January 12, 1915. Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.

The El Paso Equal Franchise League held its first meeting on January 12, 1915. Organized by El Paso Herald and El Paso Times writer and artist Ruth Monro Augur (1886-1967), the El Paso Equal Franchise League met in the parlors of the Hotel Orndorff. The League grew out of discussions a group of El Paso women had about suffrage in late 1914. According to the minutes from the first meeting, the League was formed for the “purpose of organizing an association to work to create a favorable sentiment for women’s suffrage.” The League elected businesswoman Alzina Orndorff DeGroff as its first president. Initially, the League primarily focused on studying women's suffrage and related issues. Frustrated with the League's more conservative approach, DeGroff later left the group and formed an El Paso branch of the National Woman's Party - the women's political organization founded by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns.

Fannie Smith Fennell, circa 1911 - 1912, Woman's Club of El Paso records, MS576.

By mid-February 1915, the League had 105 members and soon affiliated with the Texas Woman Suffrage Association and the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Under the leadership of the League's next presidents, Fannie Smith Fennell and Belle Critchett, the El Paso Equal Franchise League raised its community profile, worked with a coalition of El Paso women's clubs, and took a more active approach in campaigning for the vote. El Paso suffragists worked to support pro-suffrage candidates and advocated for a national women's suffrage amendment by corresponding with American political leaders and organizing public events, such as debates and a showing of the pro-suffrage film Your Girl and Mine, to educate the public about women's suffrage. After Texas women received the right to vote in state primary elections in March 1918, El Paso suffragists registered women to vote. The League also hosted talks about health and childcare as well as raised funds for the Cloudcroft Baby Sanitarium and took part in war relief efforts during WWI.

Ruth Monro Augur, 1924, The Flowsheet. Augur (1886-1967) helped organize the El Paso Equal Franchise League in 1915. A noted artist, Augur became the registrar at the State School of Mines (now UTEP) in 1917 and designed the school's first seal.
The Woman Citizen, July 5, 1919. Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.
The Woman Citizen, December 27, 1919. Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.
The Woman Citizen, January 10, 1920. Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.
Letter from Texas State Senator R.M. Dudley to El Paso suffragist Belle Critchett, February 1, 1919. Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.
Letter from Texas State Representative R.E. Thomason to Belle Critchett, July 5, 1919, expressing his support for women's suffrage. Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.
Fundraising letter from Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the NAWSA, to suffragists, December 4, 1919. Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.

Belle Christie Ferguson Critchett (March 9, 1867 – January 6, 1956) was one of El Paso’s most important suffrage leaders. She served as president of the El Paso Equal Franchise League in 1917 and in 1918. Following the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Critchett became a charter member of the El Paso League of Women Voters and served as president for five terms.

Belle Critchett, 1922. Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.

In the December 21, 1918 El Paso Herald, Critchett discussed how the disenfranchisement of women undermined American democratic ideals. She stated: "In order to save our beloved country from criticism by foreign lands and people who do not understand our talk of democracy without its complete fulfillment, women should at once, now and always, have the right to a voice in the affairs of their own government. Americans should understand that he would debar women from suffrage in this country is but a puny replica of the European kings who for centuries used their utmost to prevent man suffrage."

The El Paso Equal Franchise League, like the Texas Equal Suffrage Association, was segregated. On June 12, 1918, Belle Critchett spoke at a meeting of the Phyllis Wheatley Club of El Paso at Maude E. Craig Sampson Williams’ home about how to register to vote in the state’s primary elections – now open to women. Later that evening, Sampson Williams helped organize the El Paso Negro Woman’s Civic and Equal Franchise League and became its chair. Members of the El Paso Equal Franchise League suggested that the new group apply for membership with the Texas and national suffrage associations, but the African American organization was denied membership as a local auxiliary league due to racism. In addition to Maud Sampson Williams, other African American suffrage leaders included Annie Berry, E. Coleman, Mary Ford, Esther Nixon, Viola Washington, and Mary Wells.

Photograph, Douglass Club of Austin, 1906. Maud Craig (Sampson Williams) is the fourth woman from the left. Photo courtesy of the Douglass Club of Austin.

A teacher, civil rights leader, and community activist, Maud E. Craig Sampson Williams (1880 - 1958) taught at Douglass School and was president of the Phyllis Wheatley Club – a club for African American women in El Paso. Under her leadership, the El Paso Negro Woman’s Civic and Equal Franchise League endorsed pro-suffrage candidates and registered women to vote. Sampson Williams also served as a precinct captain during elections in 1919 and 1920 and was vice-president of the El Paso chapter of the NAACP from 1917 – 1924.

A. Louise Dietrich, Sister Aloysius Williams papers, MS258.

Another important local suffrage leader was A. Louise Dietrich (1878 – 1962). She was the director of nurses at Providence Hospital and was later its superintendent. Dietrich also administered the Cloudcroft Baby Sanitorium and St. Mark’s Hospital in El Paso. In 1903, she founded the El Paso Graduate Nurses Association. Dietrich served as president of the Texas League of Women Voters from 1938 - 1940.

Poster, El Paso League of Women Voters. Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.

After the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, the El Paso Equal Franchise League became the El Paso League of Women Voters – “a non-partisan organization that includes both men and women supporting issues but not candidates and parties. We are particularly concerned about government, citizen participation, and areas of concern relating to social and health matters, education, the environment, and international affairs.” El Paso members worked to promote voting, voter education, and citizenship training. They were also concerned with many other early twentieth-century Progressive-era issues, such as prison reform and child welfare initiatives.

Clipping from the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, October 19, 1921. Belle Critchett attending the League of Women Voters state convention. Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.
The New Citizen, Texas League of Women Voters, Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.
El Paso League of Women Voters activity reports, 1925 and 1926. Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.
National League of Women Voters pin, April 1926. Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.
Voting and campaign songs by El Paso suffragist Fannie Smith Fennell, circa early 1920s. Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.
National League of Women Voters stamps, circa 1920s. Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.
Texas Voters News, Texas League of Women Voters, June 1926. Belle Critchett papers, MS386.
"I Have Voted" tags, circa 1920s. Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386.

El Paso women continue to fight for political rights and equality. These items date 2017 – 2018 and are from the Women’s March - El Paso collection, MS641.

AAUW Outlook, Spring 2017. Women's March-El Paso collection, MS641.
The Prospector, UTEP student newspaper, January 23, 2018. Women's March - El Paso collection, MS641.
Pussyhat from the 2017 Women's March in El Paso. Women's March - El Paso collection, MS641.

Sources: "The El Paso Equal Franchise League, 1915 - 1920" by Joseph Longo, elpasohistory.com; "Belle Critchett: An El Paso Suffragist" by Abbie Weiser, elpasohistory.com; "African American Suffragists in El Paso" by Janine Young, elpasohistory.com; Handbook of Texas Online, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online; El Paso Herald; Belle Christie Critchett papers, MS386, C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department, The University of Texas at El Paso Library; Women's March - El Paso collection, MS641, C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department, The University of Texas at El Paso Library; Woman's Club of El Paso records, MS576, C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department, The University of Texas at El Paso Library.