Days Gone By - stories from the past

A precious gift was given to me by my grandmother and other women before her . . .

September 19, 1953 was a historic day in Alabama: More than thirty years after it became law, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified by the Alabama legislature. Although Alabama complied with the provisions of the amendment as soon as it went into effect in 1920, the 1953 legislature wanted “to record its approval of extending the right of suffrage to women.

Slip of paper

A few years ago, I was reading my deceased grandmother’s Bible and discovered a list of government questions and answers nestled between the pages. I knew my grandmother only placed important notes between the pages of her Bible and I was confused why she would retain this seemingly trivial paper. I later asked my mother if she knew the purpose of the list and she explained that before my grandmother was allowed to register to vote that she had to first pass a literacy test.

New voters must pass a literacy test

A few years ago, I was reading my deceased grandmother’s Bible and discovered a list of government questions and answers nestled between the pages. I knew my grandmother only placed important notes between the pages of her Bible and I was confused why she would retain this seemingly trivial paper. I later asked my mother if she knew the purpose of the list and she explained that before my grandmother was allowed to register to vote that she had to first pass a literacy test.

Women's suffrage birthday cake 1916 (Library of Congress)Women’s suffrage birthday cake 1916 – Harris and Ewing photographers (Library of Congress)

New Voters must pass a literacy test

In 1920, new voters in the State of Alabama were required to pass a twenty-page literacy test on the Constitution and state and local government before they were allowed to vote. Some questions included: “Where do presidential electors cast ballots for president?” And Name the rights a person has after he has been indicted by a grand jury.” Could you easily answer these questions today?  My grandmother actually had to study before she could vote!

Take my right to vote for granted

It was then that I realized how close I was to a generation of women who had been denied many basic citizenship rights which I now take for granted.

mama's hands bible(Photo from

Women were the property of men

When my grandmother was born in 1900, she entered a world where women were still largely considered the property of men. The following comments on Alabama Pioneers facebook page on a story about the history of Women’s jury rights in Alabama made me realize the severe restrictions on women’s citizenship even as late as the 1970s.

Connie C. – “I’m 66 years old, and I can still remember when women had to be married and have husbands signature to sign a contract for a loan or mortgage. I was so proud of myself, when at the age of 25 I was able to buy my own mobile home, in NC, with just my own signature. Getting credit in your own name was not easy, even in the 70’s because most institutions still enforced the old ways of doing business.”

Susan B. M. “Yep. orphans were mostly kids whose fathers was dead; mothers were not people so the kids [and property] were taken by the state and the women became beggars or prostitutes if her family would not take her in husband also owned the wife’s body until recently – my husband had to sign the hospital and doctor papers for my tubal back 30 years ago [which I did get 20 years ago without his signature]”

Alone in the 1950s

During the early 1950s , after her 2nd husband passed away, my grandmother was faced with ‘making a living’ in a male-dominated world. She was an enterprising woman and I remember her renting out rooms in her home for income. She also sold cosmetics and was a hair dresser for a time. Finally, seeing a need for someone to take care of the children of working women in her neighborhood, she established one of the first nursery/daycare schools for children in the western part of Birmingham and ran it for a number of years. Somehow, she even managed to acquire an old home in West End in Birmingham, Alabama to house the daycare.

Ellarea (Pratt) Bryan on far right in backMy grandmother, Ellarea Bryan on far right with two of her teachers at her nursery school

While growing up in Alabama, my grandmother probably watched the debate over women’s suffrage with interest and she was probably filled with excitement when at the age of twenty, she was finally given the right to vote via the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that same year.

Restricted by literacy laws and poll tax

After my grandmother took the literacy test and she was finally registered to vote, then she had find funds to pay a poll tax.  An annual poll tax was enacted by the State of Alabama for all voters when the present state constitution was adopted in 1901. She was exempt from the poll tax requirement at the 1920 election because poll tax books had been closed in Alabama  by the time the 19th Amendment was ratified by all the states.  However, she would have been required to pay poll taxes after the 1920 election and they were due before February 1921 or she would not remain a registered voter. I wonder if she was one of the 85,000 less votes cast by women in the 1924 Alabama election because she could not afford the poll tax. Even two dollars, the usual amount required for a poll tax, was a considerable sum for a young girl to pay to vote, especially when one considers the value in 1920 dollars.

Womens_suffrage_propaganda_in_the_window_of_a_vacant_store_in_Birmingham_AlabamaWomen’s suffrage flyer in the window of a vacant store in Birmingham, Alabama (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

A brief search on the history of Voting Rights revealed the following Amendments and Laws enacted in the United States that dealt with voting rights.

  • 15th – Passed by Congress February 26, 1869, and ratified February 3, 1870, the 15th amendment granted African American men the right to vote.
  • 19th – extending the right of voting rights to women, May 19, 1919 (Note: this Amendment was rejected and was not ratified by Alabama until 1953, but women were allowed to vote in Alabama because the Amendment became federal law when it was ratified by the required number of states in the United States.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1957 – In 1957, President Eisenhower sent Congress a proposal for civil rights legislation. The result was the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. The new act established the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department and empowered federal prosecutors to obtain court injunctions against interference with the right to vote. It also established a federal Civil Rights Commission with authority to investigate discriminatory conditions and recommend corrective measures. The final act was weakened by Congress due to lack of support among the Democrats.
  • 23rd – March 29, 1961 – Ratification extended voting rights in presidential elections to District of Columbia residents.
  • 24th – When the 24th Amendment was ratified in 1964, five states still retained a poll tax:  Virginia, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi. The amendment prohibited requiring a poll tax for voters in federal elections
  • Voting Rights Act in 1965 – This act was signed into law on August 6, 1965, by President Lyndon Johnson. It outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states after the Civil War, including literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting.
  • 26th – On March 23, 1971, a proposal to extend the right to vote to citizens eighteen years of age and older was adopted by both houses of Congress and sent to the states for ratification. The amendment became part of the Constitution on July 1, 1971

Did not take this right for granted

It must have been an awesome feeling for my grandmother when she marked her first voting ballot.  The simple act of saving the little slip of paper in her most valuable and safe place —her Bible, reveals the importance she placed on this opportunity.


The piece of paper was a personal reminder of the hard work and sacrifice that many Alabama women, ( perhaps some she even knew personally) made to obtain the right to vote.

We have come a long way since the days when women were merely considered property owned by men. Women living today should value their sacrifice as well and never take our ‘right to vote’ for granted. We are now free from being owned by the men in our lives and full citizens of the United States because of these women. We should cherish our right to vote and make our own decisions about those who govern us.


RIBBON OF LOVE: 2nd edition – A Novel of Colonial America by author Donna R. Causey
Inspired by true historical events, Mary and Henry Pattenden flee to America to escape persecution –  It is almost impossible to put the book down until completion. – Dr. Don P. Brandon, Retired Professor, Anderson University


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About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and All her books can be purchased at and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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  1. Tarah Marissa Thomas

    I look at what is underlined in my great grandmother’s Bible. I know she bought several Bibles to give to be grandkids with the family history in them as far as she knew, and I was my dad’s only child at the time so she knew that one would go to me, so she underlined what she thought was important for me to eventually read.

  2. Linda Webb Cleveland

    Thta must have been awesome to find that

  3. Nancy Pressley Beckham

    I was born in 1948. I remember that my mother’s mother, my mother and my aunts all voted in every election. I don’t know if they saved money to pay the poll taxes, but they certainly voted. My mother was a poll worker for many years. Voting was a right they all cherished as a privilege.

  4. Rejetta Balentine

    So blacks are not the only one who have suffered discrimination! What are WE going to do about that?

    1. Kathryn Flynn

      VOTE. Always vote. No matter what. Don’t let them win by default

    2. Celia Taylor Stork

      Be thankful for voting rights for women was ratified instead of complaining about the past discrimination against women. The blacks could learn a lesson from this and put the past in the past and be thankful for the present. The blacks need to realize that they weren’t the only ones enslaved and quite their whining about the past.

      1. I agree wholehearted we all should be thankful for how far we have come. I think it is ironic that the black man got the vote years before the women got the vote. Also, the so called indentured people were ‘slaves’ only difference was in the name they were labelled with. People also forget, the black and other races bought, sold and owned slaves themselves…I do not consider this comment racist
        but rather a true and informative statement.

  5. Janice Archer Thomas

    and people today think it is a hardship to have to show an ID to vote.

  6. Rwandall West

    My mother worked harder than most men she would fight anyone over her children may she r I p she loved her children it didn’t matter if you were mean to her that day she would ware your tail out and taught you the meaning of respect

  7. Ina Black

    All Women should and needs to read this. Don’t give your right to vote away by not voting. Read the whole story.

  8. iT IS TOO EASY TO TAKE OUR PRESCIOUS RIGHTS FOR GRANTED. Years ago when Business and Professional Women’s groups were lobbying for equal pay guaranteed for women, I took a petition to an 80 year old neighbor to sign. She was on top of her 2 story barn nailing down the tin sheets pulled up by spring winds. She read and said, “I’ve been widowed twice and worked hard as a man all my life. I’d just as soon marry someone instead of being equal.”

  9. I’ve been voting for fifty years, but now I’m required to show a birth certificate. I never had one because I was born at home with a family midwife. Some would love to go back to no vote for women and blacks even today and are using emotion of some no thinkers to put us back. Yesterday was not so good in some ways and I grew up under Jim Crow and the snide remarks about blacks on this forum smacks of more of the same racism I saw back in the ‘good old days.’

  10. I remember when in the early 70’s my father in law passed away, the credit cards all cancelled my mother-in-law’s cards as she was unable to have credit in her name…never mind that she was working and the one that paid the payments!!! It was an awakening for me.
    Thankful now for the rights we have. I have always exercised my right to vote!

  11. Lee Lindsay

    “More than thirty years after it became law…”

    Alabama, the Make Me! state.

  12. Evelyn McBride

    My grandmother and her father went by buggy from Lamar County to either Tuscaloosa or Montgomery to register to vote as soon as this amendment was made a law. I have their voting registration cards, but they are very ragged pieces of paper by now.

    1. Elna K Williams

      Evelyn, I’m from Fayette county Ala. I was born there in 1941. Moved to Ga. In 1950. My dad worked on base. I now live back in Warner Robins.

  13. […] The value of a simple slip of paper found in my grandmother’s Bible…a precious gift from women b…– […]

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