By Paula F. Casey and Jacque Hillman
NASHVILLE, TN — 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 most American women prior to August 18, 1920, when Tennessee became the last state that could possibly ratify the 19th Amendment. The 72-year struggle for women to become enfranchised became a reality with Tennessee’s action which enshrined their right to vote in all elections in the U.S. Constitution.
We proudly state that all American women vote today thanks to Tennessee.
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.
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.
The late Carol Lynn Yellin, co-author of The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage, said the suffragists were the greatest politicians the world has ever seen because they won the right to vote without having it.
As the national centennial in 2020 draws closer, there will be increased interest in this nonviolent revolution. We have put together the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail (www.tnwomansuffrageheritagetrail.com) to identify those sites and people who were instrumental in the woman suffrage movement. This will be helpful for heritage tourism, researchers, students preparing for History Day competitions, Scout troops, and anyone who wants to know more about these ordinary people who did extraordinary things. The suffragists proved democracy works.
It also serves as a reminder that every woman who is in elective or appointive office owes a debt of gratitude to the suffragists who made their careers possible.
In 1923, Carrie Chapman Catt, who is featured on the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Monument in Nashville’s Centennial Park, wrote in her book, Woman Suffrage and Politics: “To get the word ‘male’ in effect out of the Constitution cost the women of this country 52 years of pauseless campaign . . . During that time they were forced to conduct 56 campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to get Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to get State constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms, and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.
“Millions of dollars were raised, mainly in small sums, and expended with economic care. Hundreds of women gave the accumulated possibilities of an entire lifetime, thousands gave years of their lives, hundreds of thousands gave constant interest and such aid as they could. 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 . . . .
“It is doubtful if any man, even among suffrage men, ever realized what the suffrage struggle came to mean to women before the end was allowed in America. How much time and patience, how much work, energy, and aspiration, how much faith, how much hope, how much despair went into it. It leaves its mark on one, such a struggle . . . .”
There were numerous heroes and heroines in Tennessee. We are identifying the suffrage-related sites, markers, monuments, and individuals whose contributions should be remembered. The two of us have worked to get more public art honoring the suffragists placed across the state. There is a dearth of statuary honoring women, so we’re pleased to have more public art recognizing the suffragists.
The public art across the state includes the bas relief sculpture inside the State Capitol, Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial in Knoxville (with a second statue planned for unveiling in June), Tennessee Woman Suffrage Monument in Centennial Park, all created by sculptor Alan LeQuire; Wanda Stanfill’s sculpture of Sue Shelton White in front of Jackson City Hall; and more public art planned in Memphis to be unveiled in May 2019 during the Bicentennial events, in Clarksville and Chattanooga. We hope more states will choose to honor the suffragists by 2020 with statuary and markers.
We welcome suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org for more items to include. As we celebrate Tennessee’s greatest gift to our country, be sure to register and vote.
Paula F. Casey and Jacque Hillman are co-founders of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail. Casey is a speaker on the 19th Amendment and published The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage book, e-book and audiobook. Hillman is the Owner of The HillHelen Group Publishing Company and Reconfigured Art Jewelry.