In 1920, Tennessee Gave American Women the Vote
On your retro road trip to Tennessee, be sure and visit the landmarks that celebrate suffragettes and the centennial of women winning the vote. Tennessee played a key role in the ratification of the 19th Amendment, also called the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.
The Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which would give women universal suffrage, was submitted to the states for ratification on June 4, 1919. To win ratification of the 19th Amendment, 36 of the (then) 48 states had to approve it.
After a brutal political battle, Tennessee became “The Perfect 36.” This means it was the state that won voting rights for all women of the United States on August 18, 1920.
“Antis” vs. “Suffs”
To ratify the 19th Amendment, the “Suffs,” as the newspapers called the suffragettes, needed 36 states to approve it. To defeat it, the “Antis” only needed 13 states to reject it.
“The Deep South so strongly opposed equal suffrage that it would be necessary to sweep the rest of the country to win the necessary three fourths of the states–36 of them–to make it law. Fortunately nearly every state in the union had groups of highly organized and motivated women poised for the final showdown.”The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage
The 36th state needed for approval came down to Delaware or Tennessee. A fractured Republican party in Delaware prevented victory. Therefore, all the hopes of the suffragettes were pinned on Tennessee.
The Powerful Anti–Suffragettes
Several special interest groups joined together to oppose women’s suffrage. They knew that giving women the vote would mean that laws unfavorable to their interests would be passed.
- The “whiskey ring” was made up of alcohol manufacturers and bar owners. They knew many suffragettes were also part of the temperance movement.
- The manufacturers lobby knew female progressives fought for worker’s rights, child labor laws, and safe working conditions.
- Party machines worried that women would be less open to bribes and not corruptible.
- White supremacist groups did not want black women to receive the right to vote. They were still angry about Reconstruction and the passage of the 14th Amendment which gave black men the vote.
There were also women who opposed suffrage. They argued that men protected women and suffrage was unnatural. Many used Biblical arguments to support the submissive role of women as a husband’s helpmate and selfless mother. They argued that suffrage would destroy the family and force women to join the military.
I found it interesting that many of the same arguments and tactics used during the conflict over the 19th Amendment were later used to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment (E.R.A.) in 1973. (My article on the E.R.A. battle)
Battle Ground at the Hermitage Hotel
After much lobbying and pressure on President Woodrow Wilson to contact his Tennessee allies, the Suffs were able to persuade the governor to formally call the Tennessee legislature into a special session to vote on ratification of the 19th amendment.
In Nashville, Tennessee, the legislators often met at the luxury hotel called The Hermitage Hotel. Both the Antis and the Suffs rented rooms and set up camps so that they could attempt to influence the politicians.
The War of the Roses
The “Suffs” and their supporters wore yellow roses to show their support for ratification of the 19th amendment. The “Antis” wore red roses as symbols of their opposition. The Hermitage was the battleground for the War of the Roses.
“Under the lobby’s stained-glass skylight, milling around in suffocating numbers, were men and women, Suffs and Antis, legislators and politicians, Republicans and Democrats–all panting to learn what the others were up to.”The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage
The War of the Roses lasted for eight days. Women on both sides used all their charm and tactics to influence legislators. They started statewide letter writing campaigns, had social events and never stopped their pressure.
The liquor lobby set up a room on the eighth floor where, despite Prohibition, moonshine, bourbon and Jack Daniel’s whiskey flowed freely. Legislators against the amendment used political tactics to create delays in voting and legalistic arguments.
Suffragettes Win the Battle of the Roses
Despite the political maneuvering, the vote was held on the eighth day. It passed because Harry Burn, a young politician from an Anti district, switched to the suffragette side at the last minute. He did this to please his mother who had written to him at the Hermitage and told him to “be a good boy and vote for suffrage.”
“I want to state that I changed my vote in favor of ratification, because I believe in full suffrage as a right…and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification. I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow.”Harry Burn, The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage
The Perfect 36 Exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum
In addition to the Suffrage Monument in Centennial Park and the Hermitage, be sure and visit the Tennessee State Museum. See the temporary exhibit called “Ratified! Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote.”
Films, old photos, and memorabilia such as suffragette banners and pins are on display.The exhibit also goes into great detail about the African American leaders of the suffragette movement and the special challenges they faced.
State Capitol Suffragette Plaque
There is a bas relief plaque inside the capitol commemorating the Perfect 36. The plaque was created by Alan LeQuire, who also created the statue in Centennial Park.
“…the bronze bas-relief shows a female who I consider to be every woman, she is waving a flag and rising up over a sea of disinterested men.”Alan LeQuire, artist
Want to Learn More About Suffragette History?
I didn’t learn much about the suffrage movement in my history classes. I think my textbook gave a paragraph to the Seneca Falls Convention and the Declaration of Sentiments held in 1848. Then, magically, the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920. Here is the story in more detail.
“Femme Covert” Common Law Meant no Legal Rights for Women
When the U.S. was a British colony, the English common law femme covert came with the early settlers. A woman was “covered” by her husband, which meant they were one person–the husband. A woman had no rights as an individual. All property, earnings and even her children belonged to her husband. A woman had no right to an education or to participate in public affairs.
Women and the American Revolution
Colonial women participated in revolutionary rebellions against the British. Women signed petitions agreeing to “totally abstain from the use of tea” in opposition to the Townshend Acts of 1767. They held community spinning bees to highlight their commitment to use homespun and reject imported fabrics.
During the Revolutionary war, women had to run family farms and businesses while the men fought. Mary Katherine Gooddard so successfully managed her family’s printing business that she became the official printer of the Declaration of Independence.
Abigail Adams, married to future president John Adams, managed the family farm and generated the entire family income while John was in the Continental Congress. Abigail urged her husband:
“Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them…” She argued that laws of the new nation should recognize women as something more than property and protect them from the arbitrary and unrestrained power men held over them.America in Class
Although their marriage was a good one, it is easy to see John Adams’ opinion about giving rights to women in his reply.
“As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh…We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems…[and submit to] the Despotism of the Peticoat [sic].”John Adams, America in Class
Women Receive Educations
After the Revolution, Americans agreed that it was important for mothers to raise sons that would be virtuous and good citizens. People began to argue that women needed to be educated if they were to be good mothers.
Some men argued that education would cause an “unnatural stimulation” of the weak female brain and worried that it would destroy her softness and grace. Despite this, female academies were created and, eventually public schools included girls.
Early female academies produced the first generation of women’s rights leaders including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony.
Women Play a Strong Role in Protestant Churches
Women learned important organizational skills as they played important roles in their churches. They formed aid societies to help poor widows, orphaned children and moral reforms, such as temperance.
The Second Great Awakening was a religious revival that stressed each person’s responsibility to uphold God’s will in society and end sinful practices. Many women joined abolitionist societies to challenge slavery which they considered the national sin.
Abolition Societies Become Training Grounds for Suffragettes
“When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, women will occupy a large space in its pages, for the cause of the slave has been peculiarly woman’s cause. Her heart and conscience have supplied in large measure its motive and mainspring…and found convincing and persuasive expression in her pen and her voice.”Frederick Douglass, The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage
Through their work in abolitionist societies, women learned how to lecture, petition, organize and raise money. They also gained experience in dealing with resistance and male attacks. Their public activism violated gender conventions and women were called “promiscuous” for speaking before mixed-sex audiences and traveling in racially mixed company.
“We have good cause to be grateful to the slave. In striving to strike his irons off, we found most surely that we were manacled ourselves.”Abby Kelley, abolitionist, The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage
In 1840, a significant event happened which pushed female abolitionists into the suffragette movement. The World Anti-Slavery Convention was held in London. When female abolitionist delegates from the U.S. attended, they were not allowed to participate. They were told to sit in the curtained balcony and listen to the men debate. The women felt betrayed and humiliated.
“As Mrs. [Lucretia] Mott and I walked home, arm in arm, commenting on the incidents of the day, we resolved to hold a convention as soon as we returned home, and form a society to advance the rights of women.”Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage
Seneca Falls, New York Convention and The Declaration of Sentiments
It took eight years to organize, but in 1848, the Woman’s Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, 260 women and 40 men met to protest the political, economic and social inequality of women.
The delegates produced a protest statement, authored by Lucretia Mott, called the Declaration of Sentiments. The rhetoric was modeled after the Declaration of Independence.
“By tying the complaints of women to the most distinguished political statement the nation had made [Stanton] implied that women’s demands were no more or less radical than the American Revolution had been…”Linda Kerber, historian
The Declaration of Sentiments demanded that women be given the right to vote. It also demanded equal rights for women in marriage, religion, education and employment.
The Civil War Puts a Hold on Women’s Rights
Since so many suffragests were abolitionists, it made sense for them to put their goals on hold and focus on the fight to end slavery. At the end of the war, the Reconstruction Amendments (13th, 14th and 15th Amendments) were passed.
The suffragettes tried to combine the demands for black and woman suffrage into a single campaign. However, many male abolitionists did not agree with this.
The 14th Amendment, included the first use of the word “male” in the Constitution, thereby explicitly denying female suffrage even as it expanded voting rights for men, “regardless of race.” It was a huge setback for women’s rights.
Wyoming the First State to Give Women the Vote
Wyoming became the first women’s suffrage state. Other western states followed its lead. Colorado joined it in 1893, then Utah and Idaho joined states with enfranchised women in 1896.
Western states also opened their public colleges (founded under the Morrill Act) to women, partly to meet their demand for teachers.
The Progressive Era Improves Women’s Rights
From the 1890s through the beginning of WWI, the Progressive movement sought to solve social problems. Many of the progressives were urban, highly educated and female.
By 1880, one third of college students were female. They formed women’s clubs and used their skills to organize and fight for progressive laws. Their issues included workmen’s compensation, pure food and drug legislation, prison reform, welfare work, public health, occupational safety, public education, childhood labor laws and sweatshop regulation.
Since so many women and children suffered from poverty and abuse due to alcoholic husbands, women frequently fought for temperance legislation.
“…[women] realized that the social policies they supported could only be realized if women had the vote. In the context of all this reform, the idea of woman suffrage no longer seemed outlandish…but a perfectly logical step.”The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage
Black women also started clubs in their communities to address their needs. Their issues included funding for libraries and schools, protesting lynching and Jim Crow segregation, and winning the vote. They organized themselves into the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Affiliated clubs had over 50,000 members.
Women Make Progress
Women began to win rights. In 1913, married women gained the right to sign contracts and sue which helped them conduct business and obtain credit. Married women gained the right to divorce in 1919.
More states gave women enfranchisement: Washington (1910), California (1911), Oregon, Kansas, Arizona (1912) and Illinois (1913). In the 1916 election, both political parties adopted suffragist planks.
New Leadership in the Suffragette Movement
Carrie Chapman Catt took over the suffragette movement from Susan B. Anthony. In 1916, she unveiled her “Winning Plan” for suffrage. It was a tightly centralized, coordinated state-by-state effort to get a constitutional amendment.
In addition, the suffrage movement in England was underway. Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Stanton, and Alice Paul went to England to participate. They learned new tactics and brought them back to America.
British suffragettes did radical things, including planting bombs and burning men’s clubs, to get people’s attention. When imprisoned, they went on hunger strikes and called themselves political prisoners.
Women’s March of 1913
In 1913, Alice Paul organized 8000 women to march in protest at Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Women’s clubs came from all over the country to participate.
“The massive suffrage parade was led by a tall stunning young woman in flowing white robes on horseback. Thousands of women assembled in costumed marching units…accompanied by bands and suffrage floats. Suffrage yellow glittered in the sunlight…symbolizing the ‘dawn of a new day’ for women.’”The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage
Mistreatment of many socially prominent women in the parade by Washington police was embarrassing to the new Wilson administration. The issue of suffrage was all over the front pages.
WWI and Continued Pressure on President Wilson
The suffragettes learned their lesson from the Civil War and refused to give up their fight for equal rights during WWI, despite accusations of being unpatriotic. Suffragettes argued that we were fighting for democracy abroad but didn’t give it to women at home.
Members of the National Woman’s Party, led by Alice Paul, stationed a “perpetual delegation” in front of the White House. Carrying banners, the women stood at the gates from 10 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., six days a week so President Wilson “couldn’t forget.” Suffragettes were the first group to ever use these tactics.
Suffragettes held rallies burning copies of President Wilson’s speeches about democracy. When they were put in jail, the women would go on hunger strikes and be force fed. When they got out of jail they would write about their harsh treatment for the newspapers.
Finally, President Wilson could ignore the suffragettes no longer. President Wilson came out in favor of a federal amendment for women’s suffrage. By that time, England, Germany, Russia and 26 other European nations had granted female enfranchisement. The 19th Amendment was submitted to the states for ratification on June 4, 1919.
Nashville, Tennessee has so much more to offer than country music and honky tonks. Take some time to visit historic sites and learn about women’s history.