Nassau County women, vote!

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  • Amelia Island Chapter Daughters rally for the vote in their Suffragist attire. SUBMITTED
    Amelia Island Chapter Daughters rally for the vote in their Suffragist attire. SUBMITTED
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I do not think many women in Nassau County realize it, but when they vote in the Florida Primary on Aug. 18, they will be doing so on the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. That’s the one that accorded all American women the right to register and to vote in local, state, and national elections.

Getting there wasn’t that easy. American women struggled for years for this right. Some of them went to jail, where several were force-fed to break their hunger strikes. Others were so abused, both in and out of jail, that their health was severely affected.

The National Society Daughters of the American Revolution is spending 2020 commemorating this struggle and celebrating the Aug. 18, 1920 victory.

Pictures of today’s Daughters dressed as Suffragists have been floating across social media for some time as various chapters pay homage to the women who fought the good fight. By the way, I have been educated that the proper term for these women is “Suffragist,” and not “Suffragette.” It seems that the Suffragette sobriquet was coined in an effort to demean both the women and their cause.

Marie Santry, past regent of the Society’s Amelia Island Chapter, has spent the last eight months spearheading the chapter’s project of documenting the women of Nassau County who were among the first to vote.

She and her team – Rumsey Young, Joanne Templeton, Bebe Granger, Kimberly Westbrook, and chapter Regent Carol Elefterion – diligently combed through the Nassau County voter registration records to discover that more than 500 county women registered to vote in the 1920 election, the year that Warren G. Harding became the 34th president of the United States.

Marie, sometimes accompanied by one or more of her committee members, drove to the Records Department at the Robert M. Foster Justice Center to pour over large, dusty ledgers listing each voter by name, gender, race, and profession.

One of the benefits of this project is that Nassau County Supervisor of Elections Vicki Cannon saw how the volunteers were struggling with the ledgers, so she had all voter registration records digitized, even the ones dating back to the 1880s. That was not a small feat, especially when you consider that a new ledger was opened every four years at the start of the next presidential election cycle. Thank you, Ms. Cannon, and your staff.

Now the team’s task became easier. They could sit in the comfort of their own homes and comb registration records to note the women who had signed up to vote. Rumsey Young, Bebe Granger, and Kimberly Westbrook were invaluable in extracting this electronic data, which was added to the information Marie, Rumsey, Joanne, and Carol had compiled by hand. They have discovered that at least one Nassau County woman may have registered as early as 1918. The team is working to confirm this tidbit of information.

Marie has broken this project into five stages. The first stage – collection of raw data – will probably be complete by August, with a publication date of the final report early next year. Even though she’s still in the early stages, Marie has collected some interesting information.

Elsie A. Steiles and Laura Belle Jeffries are the first Nassau County women to register to vote after ratification of the 19th Amendment, and they did so on Sept. 8, 1920, a mere three weeks later. And an 87-year-old woman registered to vote, along with her 40-something granddaughter and 24-year-old great-granddaughter!

None of these early women voters had to pay a poll tax, as the men did. The state did not get around to issuing any direction on this matter until 1922, when it decreed that women were then required to pay a $1 poll tax.

Another interesting side note is that our supervisor of elections in the fall of 1920 was George E. Wolff. I mention this because the Wolffs were a very prominent Fernandina family for generations. Dr. Wolff was a dentist, and Wolff Park is named after him. You probably call it Main Beach, but if you read the plaque on the northwest corner of the park, near the comfort station, you will discover why it bears his name. North and South Wolff streets, which intersect with Atlantic Avenue, are also named after the good doctor.

One of the last stages of the project is to discover and record anecdotal information. Now is your chance to share some of your Nassau County family history. If you are related to either Elsie Steiles or Laura Jeffries – or any other woman living in Nassau County who might have voted in the 1920 Presidential election – please contact Marie at mcsantry@comcast.net. And please contact her if your family scrapbooks, photo albums, personal diaries, or family lore include stories about how your grandmothers or aunts registered in Nassau County for the 1920 vote.

I hope to see you at the Florida primary on Aug. 18, if not before. Every voting day is special, but this anniversary will make it even more so. See you at the polls!