For well over a year now, the Nashville Public Library has been preparing for this momentous anniversary. It was a lot of hard work and planning but the time has finally come to say that 100 years ago, on August 18th, 1920, Tennessee cast the final vote to ratify the 19th Amendment (also commonly known as women's suffrage).
On August 18th, 2020, the Library virtually unveiled the new "Votes for Women" room in Special Collections of the Downtown Library. A room that I can promise, was a collaborated effort by many to tell the story of how the unlikely state of Tennessee won the final battle to enfranchise women.
The fight for women's suffrage took about 7 decades, and like most worthy causes, had many bumps in the road. And even after it was made a federal law, that still didn't mean that every woman could or had the right to vote. As brief as I can be, this blog post covers the story of how Tennessee became the final battleground for the amendment.
Before the story begins though, check out this slideshow with photos of the current exhibit at the Downtown Library: "Saints or Monsters: Political Cartoons of the 19th Amendment"
And the current display in the West Reading Room of Metro Archives: "Nashville Voices: 36 Notable Women of Nashville". If you're interested in this display, keep checking back because it is still being updated.
It All Started at Seneca Falls
As I mentioned above, the hard-fought battle that didn't always appear to have a happy ending lasted roughly 72 years. A quote by Suffragists Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Schuler summarizes the length and struggle of the fight:
"It was a continuous, seemingly endless, chain of activity. Young suffragists who helped forge the last links of that chain were not born when it began. Old suffragists who forged the first links were dead when it ended."
While I'm not going to rehash the ENTIRE history of the movement, I will point out a few key details of the movement prior to its final stop in Nashville, to help further convey that the win in Tennessee for women's suffrage was a total underdog move.
What Happened Before the Fight Came to Nashville...
- It started at the Seneca Falls Convention, in New York, in 1848. A few of the women famously credited for starting the national campaign are Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and the woman that the amendment was nicknamed for - Susan B. Anthony.
- Other notable suffragists included: Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Alice Stone Blackwell, Henry Blackwell, Harriot Stanton Blatch, Carrie W. Clifford, Frederick Douglass, Frances E.W. Harper, Lucy Stone, Mary Church Terrell, Sojourner Truth, and Fannie Barrier Williams, to name a few.
- Some early advocates for women's rights, including suffrage, started their careers as abolitionists.
- On March 3rd, 1913, the day before Wilson's presidential inauguration, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) organized a march with thousands of women, down Pennsylvania Ave. Behind the leader of the procession, Inez Milholland, was a banner that said "The Great Demand" pronouncing that suffragists were no longer asking nicely for suffrage. African American suffragists such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell were met with resistance or silence when inquiring about joining the march. March leaders told them not to march with their states, but instead in the back of the parade - to which Wells, Terrell, and other African American women ignored and joined in the parade with their states or organizations anyway. This American Experience article defines the mindset of white suffragists well: "The women stepped into a new phase of the suffrage movement, but they failed to leave racism behind."
- During World War I, women's roles and jobs changed to help the war effort, including many suffragists and suffragist's organizations. This was beneficial by starting (slowly) to shift women's roles in society's eyes, and showing that they were a valuable addition to the workforce.
- Nashville's first election in which women could vote was the 1919 municipal elections. Suffragists Juno Frankie Pierce and Mattie E. Coleman helped 2,500 African American women vote in the these elections.
- The first state to ratify the 19th Amendment was Wisconsin (just barely before Illinois). The previous 3 states to ratify the amendment before Tennessee were Oklahoma (February, 1920), West Virginia (March), and Washington (also March).
Tennessee's War of the Roses
Introduction to the Fighters
There were many women and men involved in the final fight in Tennessee that became known as the "War of the Roses" because each side wore a different color rose to signify their stance. Suffragists wore yellow roses while anti's wore red.
I'd name all involved if I could, but to keep things brief(er), I'll introduce you to the five women present at the final fight in Tennessee, and honored in the Woman Suffrage monument in Centennial Park...
- Carrie Chapman Catt: Leader of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA)
- Anne Dallas Dudley: Third National Vice-President of the League of Women Voters; Founder of the Nashville Equal Suffrage League
- Abby Crawford Milton: Chairman for TN League of Women Voters; Spearheaded the suffrage movement in Chattanooga
- Juno Frankie Pierce: Founder of the Tennessee Vocational School for Colored Girls; Founder of the Negro Women's Reconstruction League and the Nashville Federation of Colored Women's Clubs; Helped 2,500 African American women vote in the 1919 Nashville municipal election
- Sue Shelton White “Miss Sue”: Headed the National Woman's Party (NWP) in Nashville during August, 1920; One of the first female court reporters in Tennessee in 1907
What Happened Just Before the Fight Came to Tennessee?
Prior to Nashville's turn at the amendment, it went to Delaware in May, and seemed like a win for the suffragists. But it turned into an unfortunate loss that Elaine Weiss, author of "The Woman's Hour - The Great Fight to Win the Vote" said "...took an unexpected bad turn after the Antis' corporate friends swooped into Wilmington with money and gifts and threats."
So Tennessee next? It didn't look good at all and the suffragists weren't keen on the idea of going for number 36 in a southern state, since most other southern states had already rejected the amendment or were avoiding the vote.
Also, at that time, Tennessee had an all-male legislature that was sometimes susceptible to bribery.
So the odds were looking pretty bleak for the suffragists already, but Mrs. Catt sent ahead a scout to Nashville, to gauge the politics and attitude anyway.
Catt's aide-de-camp, Marjorie Shuler, responded back to her with an assessment that the same anti forces that caused the Delaware defeat were ready to do the same in Tennessee...
"...political situation exactly like Delaware only worse. Regard outlook hopeless under present conditions."
Sue White came to Nashville to assess the situation as well, and responded back to Alice Paul (leader of the NWP) with the same prospect...
"The more I look into the Tennessee situation, the more I realize that we face a terrific fight. The anti suffragists have already begun work, appealing, as they always do in Southern campaigns, to deeply seated prejudices and pouring vitriol into old wounds."
But not all hope was lost here, and there were advocates throughout the city of Nashville. In a Tennessean editorial clipping from August 13th, 1920, entitled "Tennessee's Opportunity", the writer is imploring the readers and the legislature to take this opportunity as their own. Maybe another state will do it sometime in the future, but it's Tennessee's moment now...
Why Was it Opposed?
The reasons are endless, but Weiss explains it perfectly: "The very idea that women should have the right to participate in a government 'by and for the people' was long considered radical, even dangerous, in the U.S."
For those in the South that opposed the amendment, one of the main reasons dealt with white supremacy. If this amendment was ratified and gave women the right to vote, it also meant that Black women would have the right to vote. But that's not completely true either, and there's more on that further on.
During the era of Jim Crow laws, the South was still fighting to take the rights and liberties away from African Americans in any way they could, so a win for the suffragists was another blow to the white supremacist system.
A few other reasons opponents were against it...
- Prohibition was another controversial topic that became aligned with the Suffrage Movement. Though not all suffragists supported it, most did and used it as a political tool to gain supporters. Also, Catt's reason for supporting Prohibition was because it was a way to protect women and children from alcohol-fueled abuse.
- In the eyes of the anti-suffragists, such as Josephine Pearson (the leader), it threatened the woman's role at home (see above clipping), went against the Bible, and terrorized the idea of "manhood". Weiss' explains: "[It] undermined women’s purity and the noble chivalry of men, and threatened the home and the family. The Bible said a woman’s place was in the home, as loving wife and mother, not in the dirty realm of politics, not in the polling booth or in the jury box, where her delicate sensibilities could be assaulted, her morals sullied and even corrupted.
- Pearson also believed it would hasten the nation’s moral collapse.
- Also, many believed that suffrage should be a state's decision, not federal.
There are plenty more, I'm sure, and they get more specific, such as one story I found in the Chattanooga Daily Times - "If They Can Vote Will They Now Pay Alimony?"
And lastly, this interesting story from the same edition of the Chattanooga Daily Times. It doesn't include reasons women shouldn't get the vote, but addresses the idea of how to sway a woman's vote...
How Did the Fight Play Out in the Tennessee Legislature?
Not without some drama.
Over the roughly 6 weeks leading up to the vote, thousands of supporters for both sides poured into Nashville, leading to chaos that Weiss explains perfectly:
“The conflict quickly devolved into a vicious face-off, brimming with dirty tricks and cutting betrayals, sexist rancor, racial bigotry, booze, and the Bible, with the ghosts of the Civil War hovering over the proceedings and jitters lingering from the Great War amplifying the tension.”
Probably thanks to its close proximity to the Capitol, the Hermitage Hotel became the temporary home for suffragists and anti forces. Both sides were recruiting as many allies and solons to their cause as they could. The anti's were using, let's say, interesting tactics such as bribery, including a "Jack Daniel's suite" at the hotel, where free whiskey was offered to anti and pro-suffrage legislators, hoping to sway them to the anti side.
When Gov. Roberts agreed to reconvene the legislature to address ratification (AFTER he won renomination), it went to the Senate first on August 9th. It passed almost unanimously 4 days later with a 25-4 victory, which was "...greater than even the most enthusiastic suffragists had predicted" one story said.
Then, it moved on to the House where Speaker Seth Walker delayed the vote for several days even though he originally supported the amendment. Naturally, this caused worry among the suffragist forces. But the vote finally took place on August 18th.
The House was packed with supporters of both sides, tensions were high, the scene was set for a celebration or defeat for either side. The anti's had tried to delay or kill the vote long enough, even after a motion to table the resolution, which ended in a tie (so a win for the suffragists).
Several things then happened during the vote that were unexpected but fortuitous for the suffragists:
- Banks Turner, a Democrat that was against the amendment, changed his vote to "aye"
- Speaker Walker changed his vote to "aye" as well but not because he supported the amendment, but because he was using a parliamentary maneuver hoping to make the House reconsider the resolution. His plan failed because instead, he accidentally gave the amendment a constitutional majority.
- Lastly, the youngster representative from McMinn County - Harry T. Burn changed his vote...
It's Important to Listen to Your Mother
Rep. Harry T. Burn was another surprise vote that helped ratify the amendment, but it wasn't his decision alone. Telling the story of the 19th Amendment's victory can't be told without mentioning his name (and maybe embellishing the story a bit).
But the young representative from East Tennessee changed his vote when it came his turn to answer. After having received a letter from his mother urging him to "be a good boy" and vote for ratification (he said in a news story afterward that he was already thinking of voting in favor), his answer of "aye" rang out in the hall, shocking everyone present.
The final tally, providing a final "w" in the win column for the suffragists, was that 50 of the 99 House members had voted yes.
Jubilation and Fear
"Then the suffrage vote was announced, and the floor and galleries went wild." This is from the same news clipping from above, and it goes on at the end to say:
"Never before in the history of Tennessee was there such a scene in the House. Never before had the women of the state and of America come actively to the front to fight a good fight and to stay on the job to the end. And it was long before the halls and corridors of the historic Capitol were cleared of their bright colors."
Both suffragists and anti's were stunned - one side "jubilant", the other upset and demanding another vote.
The Anti's Fought Until the End
For the next several days before the governor signed the resolution and passed it on to D.C., the anti's fought back and the suffragists were worried with the Speaker of the House threatening to rescind ratification on constitutional technicalities.
While the rest of the country celebrated the ratification, the suffragists in Nashville were sort of in a limbo territory, waiting to see what the House would do. The anti's tried everything in these last few days to sway some of the pro-amendment legislator votes, including having a mass meeting at the Ryman, on the 19th.
But on Friday, the 20th, when the session reconvened, nothing changed in support of anti-ratification and Walker was forced to adjourn until Saturday morning, when the motion would expire – which is what happened. More shenanigans occurred to try to rescind ratification, by sending several of the legislators that voted against the amendment to Alabama, in hopes of breaking the house quorum and delay the final vote.
Again, this didn't work. And the rest is history as they say.
Weiss' book tells the entire story, with great detail, if you'd like to learn more about the people involved, the maneuvers taken by both sides, or simply to read about the entire story. The below clippings also do a great job of telling the story through illustration.
The Ringing of the Bells (or lack thereof in Tennessee)
After the victory, Mrs. Catt instructed every League of Women Voters organization throughout the country to arrange a celebration of bells and whistles for the big win, on Saturday the 28th. Many cities across the country did, but Nashville and several other cities in Tennessee, did not.
Nashville and pretty much the rest of Tennessee were sulking after the suffrage win, for a few reasons. From what I gather from my research, it's essentially because they lost on their own turf, and they thought the vote was won in an unconstitutional manner.
The Mayor claimed distraction by the city's streetcar employees' strike as an excuse, it appears, because the rest of the news clipping from above goes on to say...
"...Mayor Gupton promised that he would attend to the matter at once, according to Mrs. Kenny. Subsequently the mayor told the Tennessean that he had asked certain persons to turn their whistles loose at noon, but he declined to speak further on the subject..."
Not all Davidson County delegates in the TN Legislature voted for the amendment though, so that's part of the reason for their sulking as well. Despite Nashville's more progressive reputation, that's not applicable to everything.
But Nashville wasn't alone in their muted celebration; several other cities in the state appeared to ignore the celebration as well, like Chattanooga for instance.
The Mayor there issued a proclamation, asking his citizens to...
"...bow their heads at noon in memory of the final passing of the principles for which our forefathers fought, the death of states' rights, and the complete nullification of the Tennessee Constitution."
According to an August 29th article in the Chattanooga Daily Times, the anti's believed the celebrations didn't occur because...
"...the suff leaders were afraid to call upon the people to pass judgment on the high-handed manner in which politicians attempted to force suffrage on the nation."
Some Nashville people believed too that there was no celebration due to a lack of city-wide announcement, so the celebrations that did occur here were more personal and silent.
Continuing the Fight for Equal Voting Rights
The turnout of women voters at some polls disappointed suffragists, and there were a variety of reasons why. Some of it was the lack of time between the passing of the amendment to election for all to register. Some was the learning curve that came with voting, which intimidated many women. Some were anti's, and were rebelling against it (though strangely, not Josephine Pearson - she instructed a man on how she wanted to vote in every election after, and he voted for her).
The other main issue was poll taxing, voter suppression, and intimidation.
Though the 19th Amendment took away the discrimination of sex/gender against voters, it didn't solve all issues that comes with voting rights - including racism. Many cities across the country and especially in the South, Black women were intimidated, harassed, or physically barred from voting. And Weiss provides several very specific and horrific incidents that occurred - the worst being in Florida. The worst, she said, was in Ocoee where the KKK...
"...warned Black women, and men, not to attempt to vote. Those who defied the order faced bloody retribution: as many as fifty Black men and women died in the spasm of Election Day mob violence..."
It wasn't until 45 years later, with the Voting Rights Act, that racial discrimination in voting is now prohibited by federal legislation.
Even today, though, voting rights is still a controversial topic that's not completely solved or created equal for all, or in Weiss' words - "...true universal suffrage remains an elusive goal." That's something that the recently-deceased Rep. John Lewis spent most of his life fighting for, and called on people to continue the fight after he was gone.
And in the Votes for Women room at the Library, the final part of the display is called "Rights Won, But Not Done." It's a call-to-action for visitors to take what they've learned from the Women's Suffrage Movement, and apply it to today's struggles - "Change starts with an individual standing up and taking action."
If you're interested in learning more, here are a few other sources...
This great article that summarizes the fight in "15 minutes", with guest editor Andrea Blackman - Division Manager of Special Collections, here at the Library.
American Experience has another article discussing the importance of Black women's clubs for political and social reform.
As well as their recent 2-part documentary series called "The Vote"...
And the text where most of the info in my post is from, as well as a contributing resource (the book and the author) for the Votes for Women room, Elaine Weiss' book...