Lenna Lowe Yost
On March 8, 1920, WV State Delegate Joseph S. Thurmond beseeched his colleagues to “Be men! Be courageous!” and vote against the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Governor John Cornwell had called a special session of the state legislature to consider this very issue; he hoped the state would join the ranks of the required 36 states needed for the amendment’s ratification in time for women to cast a vote in the November presidential election. Thurmond clearly wished to prevent the state’s addition to that group in the quest to protect West Virginian women from the sullied world of politics and the sordid behavior championed by suffragists:
“While these few leaders, consisting of a very small minority of our women, are going about the country like roaring lions, threatening high officials, intimidating Congressmen and infesting legislative halls, there is another class of leaders, who, seeing the great thralldom, the deep abyss, into which they and their sisters—the great majority of the American womanhood—are about to be plunged, are humbly and earnestly pleading and praying that we may have the manhood and courage to rescue them. Will you do it? May God help you to do it.”
Since the first resolution in support of women’s suffrage was introduced in the West Virginia legislature in 1868, to the defeat of the state referendum in 1916, the state’s men had “courageously” defended the honor of its women. They followed the noble example of other male politicians throughout country by rising to their feet “to make interminable speeches on man’s God given right to tell woman what she must and must not do”—as poignantly described by national suffrage leader Carrie Catt.
Marion County native Lenna Lowe Yost was president of the West Virginia Equal Suffrage Association during the failed 1916 state referendum vote on women’s suffrage. She initially expressed high hopes in its passage, believing that West Virginia would be the first eastern and southern state to grant women this coveted right. The overwhelming defeat of the referendum demoralized Yost as well as the brave women who had fought along side her. Yost resigned as president and moved to Washington D.C. to rededicate her time and energy to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union but she remained connected to the cause by serving on the National Executive Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In 1919, however, the WVESA beckoned Yost home to lead its ratification movement.
As Chairman of the WVESA Ratification Committee, Yost organized a statewide petition drive to counter the popular argument that West Virginian women did not want the vote. Included in this drive was the creation of the a “living petition” compiled of a small delegation of women from each district ready to greet legislators as they arrived in Charleston for the special session. Yost also faced the onslaught of anti-suffrage organizers that descended upon the Capitol from both within and outside the state.
Despite ardent appeals to manhood and the courage to stand against women’s suffrage, the House of Delegates voted to ratify the amendment, 46 to 41. In the Senate, however, the vote deadlocked, 14 to 14. This tie vote initiated a frantic three-day odyssey as Senator Jesse Bloch, who had been vacationing in California, sped home to cast his vote for ratification. Yost and her committee kept a vigilant watch on the Senators during those three days, ensuring that the men’s support remained faithful and their location known when Bloch arrived and the vote was called. On March 10, 1920, West Virginia became the 34th state to ratify the 19th amendment.
Join West Virginia Wesleyan College in the commemoration of the state’s ratification of the 19th amendment and the leadership of Lenna Lowe Yost who shares a special connection to the college. Throughout the year, Wesleyan will share social media posts from students, faculty and community groups as they take our Lenna Lowe Yost paper doll on a state tour to feature West Virginia history and women’ s history.
All are welcome to participate and share their histories or showcase their own centennial events as part of “Lenna Lowe Yost’s Centennial Tour”. Send picture and histories to firstname.lastname@example.org
Yost’s relationship with WVWC began in 1896-97 when Wesleyan was still a seminary. During that winter term, she studied music, literature and art. She returned to Wesleyan to serve on the Board of Trustees from 1927 to 1942. In 1929, Wesleyan awarded her the honorary degree of Doctor of Humanities for her dedication to the improvement of women’s education. Yost was the first woman in the college’s history to receive this honor.