Otelia Maria Carrington Cunningham


Her Story

Otelia is my paternal great-grandmother. Just days after my father died in 2015, I discovered through a local newspaper article that she had been the president of the North Carolina Equal Suffrage Association in 1917 and 1918, just before women won the vote. She was referred to as "Mrs. John S. Cuningham." To my knowledge, no one (living) in my family had been aware of this, and unfortunately, I couldn't ask my father if he had ever known of her. I became determined to find out more about her life, visiting the NC state archives and researching her daughter's papers at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Otelia was a suffrage leader during a time when the women's suffrage movement had decided to focus on supporting the war effort. She worked for the state, speaking to schools and other organizations about fire safety. As she traveled the state for her job, she also spoke about suffrage to local groups and attended suffrage meetings and conventions at the state as well as the national level. Her speeches and quotes were written up in newspapers, some of which I have copies of. The membership of the suffrage league increased sixfold in the first year of her tenure.

Otelia was a risk-taker who supported suffrage in the South, a place where women were thought to be too ladylike and genteel to have the vote, and where other women were among those most ardently fighting against it. She was born in Virginia to privilege and married a wealthy North Carolina tobacco farmer, but experienced hardship in 1910 when her husband's tobacco business went bankrupt. She then went to work. She not only adapted to her situation by getting a job but then sought to make other women's lives better by fighting to give them a voice regarding their own lives and their own future. She believed if women could contribute to society -- support the war effort, hold jobs, raise children -- they had a right to vote. I am most proud of her determination and conviction in facing what was an uphill battle in the South and striving to improve the lives of women.

She was president of the NC Suffrage Association in 1917 & 1918 and was also a delegate at the 1920 Democratic Convention in San Francisco -- one of if not the first woman delegate from NC. In a letter to the editor of the Raleigh News and Observer after Tennessee ratified the 19th amendment, she wrote: "If it is right for women to be breadwinners and taxpayers, it surely can be no disgrace for women to know something about their movement and the laws under which they live.”

She gave birth to 6 children, then at age 50 became a suffrage leader. After that, she continued to work, was president of the women's church group in Greensboro (Holy Trinity Episcopal), and then in her 60s went back to school, to Duke University, to study French. She gave several major speeches during her suffrage tenure, and I have state convention programs from that time, copies of her speeches, and newspaper articles quoting them.