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Richmond’s Lila Meade Valentine and the Campaign for Equal Suffrage

Equal Suffrage League of Richmond at Capitol Square, Richmond, Virginia during a Suffrage Rally in May 1915.
Equal Suffrage League of Richmond at Capitol Square, Richmond, Virginia during a Suffrage Rally in May 1915. (Virginia Historical Society 2002.225.1) Virginia Historical Society

A century ago, a growing number of states were granting women the right to vote. But the South - and Virginia - resisted. Social activists came together in Richmond to fight for enfranchisement. One of the movement’s leaders was Lila Meade Valentine. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Read about Lila Meade Valentine and the Equal Suffrage League. Listen to the 1964 Adele Clark oral history, part of the Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.. Special thanks to the Valentine Museum and Virginia Historical Society for assistance with research and archival photos, and to WCVE's Alex Wiles for performing the role of Lila Meade Valentine.


Lila Meade Valentine began her reform work around 1900, when she was her in mid thirties. She tackled educational inequalities and access to healthcare, co-founding both the Richmond Education Association and the Instructive Visiting Nurses Association of Richmond. One of her biggest backers was her husband, Benjamin B. Valentine, whose family founded the Valentine Museum.

Meg Hughes: What was interesting about their relationship was that Mr. Valentine supported Lila Meade Valentine’s activities.

Meg Hughes is the Valentine Museum’s curator of archives.

Hughes: Both her work as a suffragist and other reform areas she was involved in, health care, education, race relations. She was involved in a variety of causes and he was supportive. Not every woman who was a suffragist could count on having a spouse who was supportive of those activities or maybe have even forbidden those activities.

The museum has a number of items related to Valentine’s work to enfranchise women. Her purple, white and gray sash, the colors of the suffrage movement, is on public display next to a photo of a rally on the steps of the state capitol. In the archives, there’s a gold silk ribbon she wore as a delegate to the 1914 National Suffrage Convention. A 1917 letter to collaborator Roberta Wellford encourages support for pro-suffrage Senator John Saunders of Middlesex as the state’s next Attorney General.

Hughes: We also have here a button, there were many buttons and lots of apparel in addition to sashes that suffragists would have worn. So this is a button [that says] “Votes for Women, Patriotism,” it shows an eagle and American flags and stars.

The Valentines were well off and with no children, Lila Meade had more time and resources to be politically active. Well-connected from her work in education and healthcare, she turned to the ballot box. In November 1909, she co-founded the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia with artists, authors and activists like Adele Clark, Nora Houston, Ellen Glasgow and Mary Johnston. It grew quickly, says Caroline Legros with the Virginia Historical Society.

Caroline Legros: In 1914, there were 45 local chapters and by 1915 there were 115 local chapters and actually by 1919, the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia was the largest political organization in the state.

Equal Suffrage League members made pamphlets, wrote articles and organized rallies. They spoke to female students and department store employees. They got men to start their own Equal Suffrage group. They started a paper, Virginia Suffrage News and debated women who were against enfranchisement. Privately, they asked prominent people for endorsements. President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter Margaret wrote to Mrs. Valentine in 1917. She thanks her for sending orchids and permits Mrs. Valentine to use her name in support of overall suffrage, but not in conjunction with the policies of any particular organization.

Legros: This is a really great letter...

Reverend Walter Russell Bowie of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church wrote to Mrs. Valentine in 1915.

Legros: And it reads, “My Dear Mrs. Valentine, I thought very earnestly of the invitation you brought last week and it is with real reluctance that I feel I should not accept it… .”

Reverend Bowie compliments her work and says while his sympathies are with the movement, he can’t speak at a Capitol Square meeting about women’s suffrage.

Legros (reading letter): The thing that is in my mind to prevent me to speaking at the Capitol Square meeting is a feeling that the time is not quite right for me to take a pronounced part in partisan propaganda in meetings and by addresses outside the church… .”

Legros: I think this is really a nice little insight into how difficult this movement was to really get traction both with the political establishment but even with the social establishment. The rector of St. Paul’s church certainly would have been a very prominent member of Richmond so trying to get his weight behind this cause would have been a coup for her and for the Equal Suffrage League but as much as he as an individual might want to support that it seems like he is very cognizant of the way it might be perceived in his community and what that might mean both for his church and his career. Certainly there’s been a lot of conversation in this current election about public opinions and private opinions, so this is a nice example of the fact that’s not a new concept in political movements, that you might have one opinion in private, but a second opinion that you have when you’re addressing the public.

The reputation of Virginia’s suffragists spread across the region and country. Valentine was invited to speak in Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina and to attend a “a great suffrage parade held in Brooklyn.” Legros says during a two year period around 1914, Valentine  traveled to 100 locations across Virginia.

Legros: And those speeches that she gave in those various places really just sparked people’s excitement.

Adele Clark, one of the League’s leaders founders, recalled the opposition they faced in a 1964 oral history with interviewer Winston Broadfoot, part of the Southern Oral History Program Collection, archived at the Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She said Mrs. Valentine, who had one child that died at birth, was put down for being “childless.”  Mary Johnston, who studied and wrote about science, was accused of promoting artificial insemination. Mary Munford, who co-founded the Richmond Education Association with Valentine, was attacked for her interracial work.

Adele Clark Oral History: My main recollection is, every time we did a thing for child welfare somebody would come out and say that childless women and old maids were the ones that were bothering all this thing. Of course, we did meet with a certain veiled violence in our open meetings.

Clark said opponents threw rocks during a speech Nora Houston was giving at Richmond’s Jefferson Park. When Valentine addressed a gathering at Fairfax Court House, someone showered the crowd with pepper.

Adele Clark Oral History: There were insults sort of hurled at us at state fairs and things of that sort. But there was no open violence. At our street meetings we always had police protection, because we went down and got permission to speak.

Publicly, the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia marginalized black women. In literature and speeches, they argued the enfranchisement of white women would protect white supremacy.

Legros: What actually Lila, the Virginia Equal Suffrage League and a lot of other Southern Equal Suffrage Leagues start to do toward the end of their campaign for women’s suffrage is start to make a strict appeal saying that if you do allow white women to vote you would actually be distancing the state of the reality of having a larger African American voting populace. So there were some interesting tactics. Lila Valentine in her private letters wrote that she wanted women of all colors to have the right to vote but she was very aware of the politics and the sentiment in Virginia, especially in the General Assembly, around both women’s right to vote but then the black vote as well. So that was a big difference between Southern voters and voters in the nation as a whole.

Nearly one century ago, on November 12, 1917, the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia gathered in Richmond for the opening session of their annual convention. President Lila Meade Valentine addressed the crowd:

(Reenactment of Speech) The world is in the throes of the most gigantic and terrible war in history. We shudder at the horror of it-- and yet, out of this welter of misery and seeming chaos, there rises a gleaming hope. We dare to believe that a world democracy is coming to birth. We rejoice that our great nation and our allies are consciously fighting for this end-- are consecrating themselves to the supreme task of making the world safe for democracy by destroying the dark forces of autocracy and militarism.

By this point, the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia had grown from about 100 members in their first year to more than 15,000. Still, there were unsuccessful in convincing state lawmakers to approve women’s suffrage. They began focusing on the federal amendment. And with the onset of World War I, they reframed their message, connecting it to the broader fight for rights and democracy. 

(Reenactment of Speech) Not that we, for a moment, are asking citizenship as a reward for services rendered. Such a notion we utterly repudiate. We base our claims upon the simple fact, that we are as completely human as man, and as entirely indispensable in the ideal conduct of a democratic government; we should, therefore, be recognized as such by the law of the land, and be given that sign and seal of sovereignty in a democracy--the ballot.

On August 18, 1920, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Virginia’s Equal Suffrage League transitioned into the League of Women Voters. Now the work focused on educating women on how to register and pay the poll tax. But they also continued pushing for reform, convincing then Governor Westmoreland Davis to establish a Children’s Code Commission. Several women, including Nora Houston were members, tasked with drafting laws to improve health and welfare for children. Adele Clark, from her 1964 oral history,

Adele Clark Oral History: They worked assiduously without pay till the fall of 1921, just giving them time to print their report. And they brought in a recommended twenty-six laws. Believe it or not, we got about twenty of them enacted in the General Assembly of 1922.

Although Lila Meade Valentine died in July 1921 before exercising her right to vote, the institutions she helped found continue to have an impact. Legros says many know about the national suffrage leaders, like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But as Lila Meade Valentine demonstrates, there were grassroots agents of change in many communities.

Legros: It’s important for young people to realize that these movements they think of massive political organizations oftentimes started from just a bunch of ladies sitting together in somebody’s dinning room saying “This has to change, we need to make a change.” and putting their forces together and finding ways to actually make that happen.

In 1936, a marble bas relief portrait of Valentine was installed in the state Capitol, the first woman honored there. Although the General Assembly approved the memorial, they voted against ratification of the 19th Amendment and continued resisting until 1952. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.