After the 19th Amendment: Women in the US Virgin Islands Secure the Vote

Today’s post was written by Jennifer Johnson, curator for Museum Programs at the National Archives in Kansas City.

When the People of the United States adopted the Nineteenth Amendment and declared that neither the United States nor any State can deny or abridge the right to vote on account of sex, they clearly established as a principle of our government that women should be allowed to vote on the same conditions as men.

Judge Albert Levitt, U.S. District Court for the Virgin Islands, December 27, 1935


On December 28, 1935, 15 years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment secured women’s constitutional right to vote, the headline “Teachers Win Suffrage Battle” was on the front page of the U.S. Virgin Islands St. Thomas Daily News. Although the Danish West Indies came under control of the United States in 1917, the men and women on the islands were not granted U.S. citizenship until 1932. It was from there that a pathway opened for all women on St. Thomas to obtain the right to vote, pursued by a group of politically and socially active women. 

Background

The U.S. Virgin Islands constitute three main islands—St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John—and dozens of smaller islands. Located in the Caribbean about 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, the islands were of strategic value to the United States government. Since the 1860s, U.S. ambassadors had tried to negotiate a purchase of the islands from Denmark.

scene of a hilly waterfront landscape with houses and trees
Etching by  F. Townsend Morgan as part of the Treasury Relief Art Project, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, 1937, Avery Johnson Fisher Collection (NAID 563944)

The opening of the Panama Canal and the start of World War I in 1914 compelled the United States to renew negotiations. A purchase treaty was finally signed in 1917 after the United States agreed to pay the Danish government $25 million dollars for the islands. Both the U.S. Senate and Denmark’s upper and lower house ratified it, and President Woodrow Wilson signed it on January 16, 1917. 

Treaty for the Purchase of the Virgin Islands, Jan 16, 1917 (NAID 299804)

As a Danish possession since 1754, the Virgin Islanders experienced one of the harshest slave systems in the world, and after emancipation the colony was neglected. The Danes did not address the economic and social well being of the islanders. When the U.S purchased the islands, they consisted of a majority Black population, descendants of enslaved persons, and a mix of descendants of Danish, Scottish, Spanish, and Portuguese origin as well. 

Newly constituting the easternmost point of U.S. territory, the islands were put under military rule. The islands were governed by an all-white Navy as acting authority until 1931. The Navy’s role in governing was limited, and per the 1917 treaty, the islands were under a provisional government. The period under the Navy (1917–1931) was marked with continued indifference and an injection of racism in the already impoverished islands. Questions about constitutional rights began almost immediately, and in 1921 a Federal court case confirmed that Danish Law prevailed over the U.S. Constitution.

In 1931 Navy rule ended, and a civilian government was established. President Herbert Hoover made the transfer effective by signing an executive order on February 27, 1931. In 1932, Congress granted U.S. citizenship to all Virgin Islanders. 

Teachers Organize for the Vote

In 1931, a group of teachers established the St. Thomas Teachers Association. The association was founded by Edith Williams. Known as the Mother of Education for her lifelong commitment to students in St. Thomas, Williams had already established a network of working women to improve conditions for students and teachers when she created the association. 

Another politically active St. Thomas woman and entrepreneur was Ella Gifft. Gifft was integral to the efforts to secure the vote and began to encourage women to seek enfranchisement, citing the passage of the 19th Amendment and that they were now U.S. citizens. On December 29, 1932, Gifft established the Suffragist League, including Edith Williams as one of the founding members. 

A real opportunity to push for the vote arrived when Federal Judge Albert Levitt was appointed to St. Thomas District Court in 1935. Judge Levitt was supportive of woman suffrage, and his wife, Elsie Hill, a former chairwoman of the National Woman’s Party, had been deeply involved in the suffrage movement in New York. Hill soon joined the local women’s groups and was a key advocate for the women of St. Thomas. 

In December 1935, Edith Williams was the first woman to apply to become a registered voter, and within a week, 23 more women did the same. The St. Thomas electoral board rejected all of the women’s applications, citing Danish law. Many of these women held full-time jobs as teachers and owned homes, but they were denied because of their gender. 

Through Elsie Hill, they acquired a lawyer, and three women were chosen to file a petition for a writ of mandamus, or a court order, to be added as voters. Edith Williams, Anna M. Vessup, and Eulalie Stevens submitted their petition on December 24, 1935. Eulalie Stevens was born in New York City and migrated to the islands in the 1920s. She had already witnessed success in seeing women secure the right to vote in New York in 1917. 

On December 27, Judge Levitt issued his judgment, ruling: 

“It is hereby ORDERED and DECREED that the Town and Country Electoral Board of St. Thomas…be commanded to register and place upon the voting list the names of Edith Williams, Anna M. Vessup, and Eulalie Stevens who are herewith adjudged to be duly and properly qualified voters.”

Judgement in the Matter of the Application of Edith Williams, Anna Vessup, and Eulalie Stevens for a writ of permanent mandamus, page 1 (NAID 140153320)

In his Opinion, Judge Levitt wrote, “in regard to the right to vote, the principle of equality between sexes is definitely established by the legislative history of the long battle for universal and equal suffrage which resulted in the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

The St. Thomas electoral board appealed the judgment, but they were unsuccessful in keeping the women of St. Thomas off of the voting rolls. Members of the electoral board were required to add them back and submit court-ordered documentation. On May 29, 1936, the electoral board submitted a record showing a list of women added to the voter rolls, thereby securing full voting rights for the women of St. Thomas.

The ruling in St. Thomas inspired the women of St. John and St. Croix to challenge their electoral boards. Shortly after Judge Levitt’s judgment, women on all three islands were eligible to vote. 

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