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Suffrage was not the only political issue of interest to Texas clubwomen. Women such as Mrs. W.B. Wynne fought for legal and property rights as well.
Suffrage opponents included those who feared that African-American women would be allowed to vote.
1911 organizing telegram from Erminia Thompson Folsom to Eleanor Brackenridge
This 1912 letter from Erminia Thompson Folsom to Annette Finnigan reveals some of the intrigue behind the scenes
of the suffrage movement.
By 1913, interest in suffrage had grown to the point where Holland's magazine sponsored an essay contest on the subject.
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A Strong Comeback
Outside of Austin, where a group of women established a suffrage club in 1908, there was little organized suffrage activity in Texas between 1905, when Annette Finnigan and her sisters left the state, and 1912, when San Antonio clubwomen founded the Equal Franchise Society. Following San Antonio's lead, women in other towns and cities formed suffrage organizations. In 1913, more than 100 representatives from seven cities met and formed a statewide organization, the Texas Woman Suffrage Association. That same year, Annette Finnigan returned to Texas, joining forces with Eleanor Brackenridge to provide strong leadership for the group.
Across the nation, while the push for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution had lagged for decades, suffragists had concentrated on winning the vote for women on a state-by-state basis. By 1915, 11 states -- Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, California, Oregon, Montana, Kansas, Arizona, and Nevada -- had all given women the vote.
Texas women aimed to be next. They conducted a newspaper campaign and distributed literature statewide to raise the issue of women's suffrage to an active issue that could no longer simply be dismissed. When the legislature came into session, they established an active lobby in Austin. Women throughout the state sent letters and petitions to their lawmakers. For the first time, the House committee on constitutional amendments recommended that women's suffrage be adopted. The motion seemed likely to pass, which would allow the women's suffrage amendment to be placed before the voters of Texas.
Then, an opponent of women's suffrage from Brownsville stepped into the ring and almost single-handedly stopped the passage of the amendment with powerful and emotional testimony. When the House voted, the final tally was 90-32 -- just four short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage.
That opponent from Brownsville was a woman. Her name was Pauline Wells.
Pauline Kleiber Wells
Although the population in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas was mostly Mexican-American, life was dominated by Anglo ranchers and businessmen. Powerful machine bosses controlled the Mexican American vote through a combination of paternalism, coercion, and corruption. Government was run for the benefit of the Anglo elite. Bosses like Archie Parr of Duval County made sure the balloting turned out as expected, using tactics such as stationing armed guards at the polls, distributing ballots that were already marked, and outright tampering with the results. He and other bosses eliminated opposition by doing away with precinct conventions and even refusing to accept poll-tax payments from people who disagreed with them.
The boss of bosses in South Texas was James B. Wells, Jr. Beginning in the 1870s, Wells and his law partner Stephen Powers presided over a Democratic political machine that controlled the votes in Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Duval counties. In 1880, Wells married Pauline Kleiber, Powers's niece. Pauline Kleiber Wells would be the life-long advisor and confidante of her husband. While local bosses like Parr oversaw their own machines, they deferred to Wells on matters of regional, state, and national importance. Wells kept power by keeping ranchers happy, especially by promoting the extension of the railroads into the lower Rio Grande Valley. The ensuing boom in vegetable and fruit farming transformed the economy and attracted thousands of new settlers. Ironically, Wells's success would be his undoing.
As the region grew and changed, Jim Wells realized that his hold on power was slipping away. The new settlers wanted honest, progressive government. They also hated Hispanics. The Mexican Revolution had been a source of border trouble since 1910, and in 1915, partisans launched raids against newly developed farms, irrigation systems, and railroad lines. This in turn led to white reprisals, including lynchings and home burnings. The white settlers were angry and disgusted and wanted Wells, the bosses, and the whole system of controlled Hispanic voting out, permanently.
Wells realized that white women voters posed a tremendous threat to his power. Wells said, "No one on earth can tell how they are going to vote, or can control them." His wife, Pauline, agreed. In 1915, when a women's suffrage amendment to the Texas Constitution seemed near passage, Pauline Wells traveled to Austin to testify before the Legislature. Almost single-handedly, she stopped the amendment from passing and being put before the voters. Wells testified that women's suffrage would lead to "feminism, sex antagonism, socialism, anarchy and Mormonism."
Following her success, she formed the Texas Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, which remained the vehicle for opposition to women's suffrage in Texas until the battle ended in 1919.
Profile: Pauline Kleiber Wells (1863-1928)
Pauline Kleiber was born in Brownsville into a family with considerable political power. She married James B. Wells, Jr. (Jim Wells) in 1880. Wells raised four children and pursued an active interest in reading, music, and theater, but behind the genteel façade was a steely political consciousness. Wells was a close advisor and confidante of her husband. About 1912, she became active in campaigning against women's suffrage. She left public life after the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote nationwide. The following year, her husband's political machine collapsed, unable to withstand the changes that had come to the Rio Grande Valley. He had made ill-advised investments and died heavily in debt in 1923. Pauline Wells died of heart disease in 1928.
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