Tennessee celebrates its role in suffrage movement


By Rebecca Stockton

Over a span of 70 years, or three generations of activists, women of Tennessee pushed for equality in the voting booths. In 1920, one hundred years ago, their efforts were rewarded by Tennessee’s radical decision to ratify the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.

To honor this monumentally historic day, The Women’s Suffrage Centennial presented a livestreamed reenactment of the 1920 historic ratification vote. Hosted by Demetria Kalodimos and Max Pirkle, the re-enactment was held at the state capitol in Nashville. Members of the 1920 House of Representatives were portrayed by current representatives, as well as local actors who worked from a script. Gov. Bill Lee was also in attendance and spoke of the significant role Tennessee played in this historic ruling. According to Katie Thomas of the Official Committee of the State of Tennessee Women Suffrage Centennial, over 15,000 viewers tuned in for the re-enactment of the vote.

The event, livestreamed on several social media portals in black and white, was a dedication to the brave and dedicated women who pushed for equality across Tennessee. To lobby legislators in districts, many of the pro-suffrage movement rode by train, wagon, or even walked on foot to have face-to-face meetings in an effort to persuade state officials to vote for the amendment. Through the mud, rain and storms, they stood strong in their beliefs and would not let anything stop them in their desire for equality.

“The women were mostly ignored and often ridiculed by opponents, including President (Woodrow) Wilson who claimed the states should be responsible for making the changes they desired,” said Middle Tennessee State University Women’s and Gender Studies professor, Natalie Hoskins.

Many suffragists, such as Sue White of Jackson, were even jailed and beaten for their beliefs.

The 19th Amendment, known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, required approval by 36 of the then 48 states to become part of the U.S. Constitution.

Tennessee was not expected to play a deciding role in the amendment’s passage, but in several states where it was expected to pass, the measure failed. Thirty-five states had given their approval, but 36 were needed for ratification. On July 1, 1920, Louisiana rejected the amendment, leaving only five states whose legislatures had not voted. These states were: Connecticut, Vermont, Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee.

Suffrage supporters and their anti-suffrage opponents came in droves to Nashville, where the governor had called a special session on August 9 to consider the amendment. In the next nine days, the issue moved its way through the Senate and to the House with much debate.

On August 13, the Senate committee on constitutional amendments forwarded the issue up to the full Senate for a vote. Doing so, the committee’s leaders noted: “We covet for Tennessee the signal honor of being the 36th and last state necessary to consummate this great reform.” The Senate voted to ratify, 25-4.

In the House, the votes were much more evenly divided. Although there were efforts to table the measure a vote was held and the resolution was approved on August 18, by a slim 50 to 46 margin. But it was enough to approve full voting rights for 17 million American women. The amendment was made official on Aug. 26 when Tennessee’s certification of the vote was received by then U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby who signed the measure into law.

Although the fight for women’s rights seems very current, the fight has been shifting, evolving and changing our way of life for the past century. Married women gained the right to own property, gain custody of children after a divorce, and they gained legal claim to money they earned within a marriage, thanks to the suffrage movement. This vote changed the course of American history forever.

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