Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Virginia Durant Covington Young, 1842-1906
By Barbara L. Bellows, Independent Historian
Virginia D. Young was a pioneering South Carolina suffragist, temperance leader, author, and newspaper editor known for her dignified charm, political savvy, and "love for womankind."
Born in Georgetown, SC on March 10, 1842, Young was raised in the Marion District. She idolized her father, Colonel William Wallace Durant, a wealthy planter and state legislator, who sparked her interest in politics and proved the fallacy of gendered "spheres" with his tender nurturing after the death of her mother, Julia. At sixteen years of age, she married farmer Benjamin H. Covington and moved to his home in Rockingham, N.C. During the Civil War years while Covington served as an officer with the PeeDee Guard, Young rekindled her childhood interest in writing and pseudonymously published stories in popular southern magazines subtly criticizing marriage as stifling to women's creativity. In 1874, she followed her husband to a DeSoto County, Mississippi farm, but returned to Marion after his death in 1879. On December 22, 1880, she made a fortuitous second marriage to Dr. William Jasper Young of Fairfax, nine years her junior. Riding along in his carriage on his daily rounds among the rural poor sparked her social conscience. The doctor supported his wife's reformist activities and encouraged her independence by putting his house in her name. Young's feminist friends later called Dr. Young a "nineteenth century hero."
Young's participation in Baptist missionary societies led her to join the state's popular Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1886. She emerged as a crowd-pleasing lecturer and began writing temperance columns for the Hampton Guardian and other local newspapers that laced politics with gentle humor. In 1890, driven by her growing conviction that only through the ballot could WCTU goals be secured, the frail Young risked social ostracism by co-founding the South Carolina Equal Rights Association (SCERA) with Ann Viola Neblett. The "little knot" of members elected her president. In 1892, as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was shifting away from a federal campaign to a state-by-state effort and forging a southern strategy, the SCERA become an affiliate member and Young, a vice-president for South Carolina.
Young, a member of the SC Press Association, began drumming up publicity for the nascent suffrage movement among her journalist contacts. Robert H. Hemphill, editor of an Abbeville newspaper, state senator, and father of six daughters proved an invaluable ally. In 1892, he boldly introduced a joint resolution to the General Assembly that women be given the right to vote in state elections. His bill was defeated, as was Young's later petition for her own enfranchisement as a taxpayer.
Despite Young's earnest efforts, enthusiasm for the cause waned until 1895, when at the urging of Populist senator Benjamin R. Tillman, a convention was called revise the Reconstruction-era Constitution of 1868 that had created a black majority of voters in the state. Since suffrage was going to be one of the hotly debated topics, Young vowed to throw enfranchisement of women into the mix. The NAWSA leadership agreed to help fund the SCERA campaign and in a symbolic gesture held its annual meeting in Atlanta in late January 1895. Young and Hemphill were both on the program. Although the northern reformers had long considered South Carolina benighted and its women provincial, former abolitionist Susan B. Anthony urged sectional reconciliation. Experienced strategists of the NAWSA encouraged the South Carolinians to lobby the convention for the restricted enfranchisement of women based on literacy or property ownership. As early as 1867, Massachusetts suffrage advocate Henry Blackwell had advocated this strategy to defuse antagonism between North and South over the enfranchisement of freedmen.
Once back in South Carolina, Young and Neblett dressed in their finest and with a few others went on a 23-day blitz of the state, through towns, hamlets, and cross-road settlements to show they were not freaks and assure that the equal rights movement did not mean equal rights for everyone. The unadorned Anthony joined them for a few stops and nearly derailed their hopes by prematurely announcing their goal of having woman suffrage included in the new constitution before delegates had been chosen. The suffragists encountered a complex political landscape populated by farmers, factory workers, and businessmen united only in their desire to eliminate the influence of black male voters without disenfranchising large numbers of illiterate poor white men. Women were often hostile about this threat on Biblical grounds or threats to the family.
By the time Young addressed the convention's committee on suffrage on September 17, she had expanded her usual repertoire invoking the "trinity of reason, justice, and expediency" to include the promise that adding qualified women to the voting rolls would guarantee white supremacy. A false rumor started that Ben Tillman endorsed their plan., Young produced statistics purporting to prove that opening the polls to literate women would guarantee a white majority of 25,000 without violence at the polls or violating federal law. On October 29, after considerable debate, the proposed Clayton Amendment granting the ballot to women with $300 worth of taxable property went down to defeat 121 to 42. Among the "ayes" were four of the six African American delegates who saw the proposal as moving the state ever so slightly forward in the quest for human rights and equality for black as well as white women. An alternative put forward that qualified woman suffrage be approved as an "emergency provision" in the event that the proposed anti-black voting laws be found unconstitutional was defeated by a smaller margin.
After a final attempt in 1896 to secure the vote in presidential elections gained no traction, the SCERA fell into disarray. Young, a believer in positive thinking, soldiered on, writing three didactic novels with reform themes. Becoming the editor and sole owner of the FairfaxEnterprise in 1899, she and her all-female staff dedicated the weekly to "promoting woman's rights, correcting the wrongs done woman, and the advancement of good fellowship among all mankind." Young continued her connection with the NAWSA, frequently speaking at the annual conventions, and participating in its 1902 Charleston conference held at the South Carolina and West Indian Exposition.
When Young died at her home on November 2, 1906, all semblance of a state suffrage organization died with her.
Virginia Durant Young. Image from Find-a-Grave at https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/39044975/virginia-durant-young#view-photo=19206363
Bellows, Barbara L., "Virginia Durant Covington Young," in Edgar, Walter, ed., The South Carolina Encyclopedia (Columbia: USC Press, 2006)
Taylor, Antoinette Elizabeth, "South Carolina and the Enfranchisement of Women: The Early Years," South Carolina Historical Magazine 77 (April 1976): 115-126.
Ulmer, Barbara B., "Virginia Durant Young: New South Suffragist." Master's thesis, University of South Carolina, 1979.