Frances Griffin (1843-1917) was a pioneering suffragist who prepared the way for women to have the right to vote in Alabama. After a long career as an educator, Griffin traveled extensively throughout the state, giving speeches for social causes, especially Prohibition and women’s suffrage.
Frances Griffin Born in Wetumpka, Elmore County, on July 22, 1843, to Bennett Griffin, a cotton planter from Georgia, and Martha Mitchell Griffin, Emera Frances Griffin was one of five siblings. In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, she graduated from the Judson Female Institute (now Judson College) in Marion, Perry County. Though born into a planter family and educated to be a wife and mother, Griffin never married and chose to become a teacher in Montgomery, Montgomery County, one of the few careers available to her. This choice would provide her with her first opportunities to speak in public.
Many women who worked for suffrage began their social uplift work in other areas, and Griffin was no exception. She began her public work in 1885 in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which sought to outlaw the sale and consumption of alcohol because of its negative effects on women and children. In the 1880s and early 1890s, Griffin traveled the state, giving speeches on behalf of the WCTU that were widely praised in newspapers of the time. Griffin became so well-known for her temperance work that she was invited to address the Texas legislature on the importance of including scientific instruction about prohibition in schools and was so well thought of in her oratorical abilities that she was asked to speak at the dedication the new courthouse in Greenville, Mississippi, after giving several speeches advocating prohibition there. In 1889, Griffin served as a delegate to the national WCTU convention in Chicago, where she, along with a delegate from South Carolina, addressed the assembly about the unique nature of temperance work in the South. Again, her speech was widely praised in newspapers throughout the country.
Griffin and her fellow temperance activists soon came to realize that without the right to vote, they would never be able to effectively achieve social change. Thus, Griffin moved to the suffrage cause and became a one-woman crusader to bring the right to vote to women in Alabama. She founded a suffrage club in Verbena, Chilton County, in 1892, which earned her a mention in the 1902 The History of Woman Suffrage by Susan B. Anthony and Ida Harper. By 1899, Griffin was promoting suffrage throughout the state and the nation. That year, she spoke at the thirty-first annual woman’s suffrage convention in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and her speech was so well received that she was called back to the stage for an encore. By the start of the twentieth century, Griffin was giving talks under the auspices of the Georgia Equal Suffrage Association to the Atlanta Chautauqua Assembly, one of a nationwide series of gatherings aimed at promoting culture, civics, and the arts.
Griffin gave her most important suffrage speech June 10, 1901, when she addressed the Alabama Constitutional Convention. Griffin later noted that she only found out late Friday afternoon that she would speak the following Monday. The transcripts of the proceedings, and the flood of articles and editorials that followed her address, provide a candid look into Griffin’s personality, the political status of white women in Alabama in 1901, and the work of the Constitutional Convention. Griffin was ushered in after a motion to adjourn for the day, and many delegates initially opposed her speech when a voice vote was taken. When a vote was taken by a show-of-hands, however, the delegates agreed to allow her to speak with 71 to 1 in favor. When questioned later as to why they eventually voted for her speech, the delegates admitted they were afraid of the response from the multitude of women in the gallery.
Griffin’s speech to the Constitutional Convention bears witness to her wit, humor, and logic. She tackled many of the reasons given for why women should not be allowed to vote by pointing out that women cannot fully address society’s ills until they can vote for legislators to enact laws to address the problems. She further pointed out that the idea of “silent influence,” by which women supposedly make themselves heard by remaining silent, is impossible and is proven so by the fact that no man is willing to give up the ballot to gain “silent influence.” She countered that women would clean up politics instead of being sullied by it and pointed out that there were more women in college than men at that time, so they were certainly smart enough to vote, especially since they hadn’t been compromised in their thinking by tobacco and liquor, the last point being a throwback to her temperance days. Griffin also noted that if being a soldier is the only qualification for voting, most of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention would have been ineligible to vote because they could not physically serve in the army, and she also disproved the argument that women should not vote because not all women wanted to by pointing out that not all men voted either. Griffin closed her speech by pointing out that because laws affect both men and women, both should have a say in making those laws. She continued by noting that men are too different from women to be able to represent them and therefore women must be able to represent themselves. With the conclusion of her speech, Griffin became the first woman to address a legislative body in Alabama.
Griffin continued her suffrage work, including serving as president of the Alabama Woman’s Suffrage Association, an organization she ran from her home and for which she did most of the work in 1903 and 1904. She wrote articles about suffrage that appeared in various newspapers throughout the state, including a 1903 article examining her 20 years of work for temperance and suffrage. Griffin saw Alabama’s suffrage movement revitalized with the creation of the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association (AESA), presided over by Pattie Ruffner Jacobs, in 1912. But, by that time, Griffin had scaled back her suffrage work, leaving it to the next generation, though she did attend the February 1917 AESA convention in Birmingham, Jefferson County. It was noted that Griffin was the oldest suffragist in attendance. Griffin saw the AESA work in vain for a suffrage vote from the Alabama legislature when it met in 1915 and failed to pass a suffrage amendment.
Frances Griffin died on June 17, 1917, in Bessemer, after a brief illness. Newspaper notices of her death discussed her teaching career, her work for Prohibition, and her suffrage work, noting that she spoke six languages. Frances Griffin, tireless campaigner for a woman’s right to vote, never cast a ballot. The Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was declared ratified on August 26, 1920.
“Alabama at the W.C.T.U.” Montgomery Advertiser, December 7, 1889, p. 4.
De Cottes, Nina B. “And Educational Matters—In Mid-Ocean.” Montgomery Advertiser, June 16, 1901, p. 13.
Surname Vertical File, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.
Anthony, Susan B., and Ida Harper, eds. “Alabama.” In The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. IV, 1883-1900, p. 465. Rochester, N.Y.: Susan B. Anthony, 1902.