100 Years Ago Tennessee Played a Key Role in Enfranchising Women

Rendering by Alan LeQuire

By Paula F. Casey

The Equality Trailblazers monument will stand outside the University of Memphis law school.

Imagine being born into a country where you were denied the right to vote just because you were a woman.

That was primarily the situation for American women prior to August 18, 1920, when Tennessee became the last state that could possibly ratify the 19th Amendment, which states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

The 72-year struggle for women’s enfranchisement came closer to reality with Tennessee’s action, led by Memphis Rep. Joseph Hanover and a united Shelby County delegation, which enshrined in the U.S. Constitution their right to vote in all elections. The Constitution grants the right to vote; however, the states implement policies and procedures, and that’s where discriminatory practices continued into the twentieth century.

The late Carol Lynn Yellin wrote: “Suffragists had to win in no fewer than 36 legislatures, while their opponents, the entrenched and well-heeled Antis, could kill the amendment by squashing it in just 13 legislatures. Behind the Antis’ formally organized battalions — a National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (for ladies) and the American Constitutional League (for gentlemen) — stood the suffragists’ real and most powerful enemies, a shadowy conglomerate of special interests referred to as the whiskey ring, the railroad trust, and the manufacturers’ lobby.

“It fell to Tennessee, a border state with well-organized pro-suffrage groups — National American Woman Suffrage Association and National Woman’s Party stalwarts — and anti-suffrage factions, to become ‘The Perfect 36.’”

“After passage in Congress on June 4, 1919, there were 34 state ratifications from June 10, 1919, until March 10, 1920. On March 22, 1920, the Washington state legislature was called into special session and unanimously completed ratification number 35. Where was number 36? With final victory so amazingly and tantalizingly close, the ratification campaign stalled. Six states, all Southern, had already rejected the amendment. Only seven states had not yet acted, and three of these — Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina — were also from the Deep and Democratic South. No chance there where memories of federally controlled elections during the dark days of Reconstruction still rankled, and the 19th Amendment, with its Section 2 granting enforcement powers to Congress, was anathema. There was no hope in Connecticut or Vermont.

“It fell to Tennessee, a border state with well-organized pro-suffrage groups — National American Woman Suffrage Association and National Woman’s Party stalwarts — and anti-suffrage factions, to become ‘The Perfect 36.’ The reluctant governor, A.H. Roberts, conveniently called a special session for August 9, 1920, after his party primary. After extensive heated debate and parliamentary maneuverings, the state Senate concurred 25-4. The House vote was a cliffhanger. It passed 50-46 on August 18, 1920, and survived constitutional challenges so that Tennessee’s ratification made votes for women the law of the land.”

Yellin, co-author of The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage with Dr. Janann Sherman, said the suffragists were the greatest politicians the world has ever seen because they won the right to vote without having it.

There were numerous heroes and heroines in Tennessee. Prior to February 1998, nothing inside the state capitol building depicted Tennessee’s important role in this nonviolent revolution. Then-state Senator Steve Cohen, now our congressman, sought to rectify that. He understood the importance of public art and worked with the Tennessee Arts Commission to hold a blind competition. Noted artist/sculptor Alan LeQuire of Nashville won that competition and his bas relief sculpture was unveiled between the House and Senate chambers. LeQuire has been commissioned to create more suffragist public art in Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis.

There is a nationwide dearth of public statuary honoring women; statues of men account for over 90 percent of all such public art. In 2012, Jim Strickland, then a city council member, told me he wanted a Memphis suffrage monument because he knew I was working on the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Monument in Nashville. After finishing the Nashville and Jackson statues, we were able to start working seriously on Memphis’ in December 2016.

The “Equality Trailblazers” monument will honor 12 women — Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Lide Smith Meriwether, Marion Griffin, Lulu Colyar Reese, Charl Ormond Williams, Alma Law, Minerva Johnican, Maxine Smith, Lois DeBerry, Frances Loring, Happy Snowden Jones — and the unsung suffrage hero, Rep. Joseph Hanover. The state historical marker for Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, the earliest known suffragist in Tennessee, will be placed in close proximity.

Tennessee legislators changed the course of American history in 1920. We honor those who believed in democracy and the rule of law with our public art. This monument, located on the bluff by the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, will be an important part of the Memphis Heritage Trail, the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail, and the National Votes for Women Trail.

Paula F. Casey, co-founder of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail, is a speaker on the 19th Amendment, publisher of The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage, and committee chair of the Memphis Suffrage Monument.

note:  Tennessee Tribune Publisher Rosetta Miller-Perry is a graduate of the University of Memphis.