Memories from the first woman purported to cast a vote in a national election in West Virginia.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which passed the U.S. Congress in 1919 but required ratification by 36 states before it could be formally adopted into law. West Virginia was the 34th state to ratify the amendment, and Tennessee was the 36th on August 26, 1920. Women were finally granted the right to vote after a long and storied battle by suffragists around the country.
So who was the very first woman in West Virginia to cast her ballot? It’s purportedly Irene Drukker Broh of Cabell County.
Broh was a native of St. Louis, born in 1880 to Simon Drukker and Sarah Tobias Drukker, a suffragist who worked alongside Susan B. Anthony. Her father wasn’t supportive of women organizing and fighting for their right to vote. Broh said he traveled a lot, and as soon as he left town, her mother would scoop her up and head to the suffrage meetings.
Irene Drukker married Ephraim Broh in 1905 and moved with him to Huntington four years later. Unlike her father, Ephraim was supportive of women’s efforts and encouraged his wife to remain involved. Broh followed in her mother’s footsteps and organized the city’s first suffrage club.
In those years, men went to some lengths to keep women away from polling places, Broh related in a 1974 interview preserved by Marshall University’s Marshall Digital Scholar program. “On election day, the men measured off 100 feet, and if we had come 99 feet inside the polls we’d have been arrested. That was the law.”
Broh said women at the time didn’t react much to winning the right to vote. Many men, Broh added, didn’t even share the news with their wives. They had to be educated about the responsibility and privilege of voting.
It’s fitting that one of the very first suffragists in West Virginia also claimed the title of the state’s first female to cast a vote in a federal election. She voted by paper ballot on November 2, 1920 at the Kestler Garage on Fifth Avenue in Huntington—at 7 a.m., as soon as the polls opened. Several men in the polling place offered to put Broh’s ballot in the box for her. She refused them all, because her suffrage group had been warned of it as just another scheme to keep women’s votes from being counted.
Following the passage of the 19th amendment, suffragist clubs nationwide gave way to new groups called Leagues of Women Voters. Broh remained active in the women’s rights movement and became a supporter of the National Organization for Women. “You see,” Broh said, “we didn’t do anything but work for the vote. Now that we have it, we have an opportunity to do better things. So many things.”
posted on June 1, 2020
image courtesy of Marshall University Special Collections