Lena Springs

Lena Springs

South carolina college professor Lena Springs, educated at Virginia College in Roanoke, did not fit the stereotype of a Southern belle. She plunged into politics, campaigning across South Carolina for women’s suffrage—even though South Carolina was so emphatic about not allowing women to vote that it didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until 1969, long after it had gone into effect in 1920. Springs, like most white Southerners of the time, was a Democrat. She cast her first vote in 1920 for that year’s losing Democratic ticket and by 1922 had gotten herself elected a Democratic National Committeewoman—part of the national party’s official governance. And in 1924, both she and her husband were delegates to the national convention in New York that was looking to find a candidate to run against President Calvin Coolidge. That alone made her part of history—she was one of 182 women who were delegates at the convention.

By then, Springs was well-regarded enough that an otherwise fractious convention unanimously elected her to chair the credentials committee—a big deal in those days. “Mrs. Springs caught the fancy of the convention from the start,” The New York Times reported. “Mrs. Springs handled her committees like a veteran, winning the plaudits of her colleagues not only for the ability she showed but for the courtesy and fairness of her every act.” Springs was tapped to deliver one of the seconding speeches for William Gibbs McAdoo, who had been Woodrow Wilson’s treasury secretary.

South Carolina Democrats may not have liked the idea of giving women the right to vote but they soon decided they liked Springs—and intended to nominate her for vice president. “Mrs. Springs was taken completely by surprise when told of the plan,” the Times reported. There was one awkward problem. Was she old enough? The Constitution sets the minimum age at 35 and who was going to ask a lady her age? “Mrs. Springs admits she meets this constitutional provision,” the Times reported. “To the casual observer she might seem to be below the age limit and therefore ineligible.” (She was 41).

The next day, after the front page story in the The New York Times, Springs was “immediately surrounded by scores of friends and admirers, with men in the majority.” The powerful Sen. Burton Wheeler of Montana declared he would approve of her nomination: “She would most certainly improve the situation in the Senate.” Humorist Will Rogers suggested that “I am willing to consider you for head of the ticket.”

It’s hard to say whether Springs was ever seriously going to be considered or if this was just a popular gesture, a nod to changing times. In any case, Democrats labored through the longest political convention in history before finally nominating dark horse John Davis. Early in the morning of July 10, the convention delegates finally got around to picking a vice presidential candidate, those being the days when delegates still did such things. There were an astounding 30 candidates nominated—and Nebraska Gov. Charles Bryan led with 332 votes. Springs finished a distant fourth—but still ahead of the governors of New Jersey and Kansas, the mayor of New York City and apparently 23 others. The first roll call showed 42 votes for Springs before delegations start switching votes to get behind front-runner Bryan—and go home.

The Davis ticket lost badly in the fall, and Springs apparently was never mentioned for office again. How might history have been different if she had been?

—Excerpted from The Roanoke Times

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