Thursday, August 1, 2019

Remember the Ladies: Origins of the Woman Suffrage Movement

By Patsy Mitchell

Women march for the right to vote in a Nashville parade for women's suffrage, approximately 1915. Sadie Warner Frazer Papers, 1894-1974

2020 marks the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the United States with the ratification of the 19th amendment by the Tennessee General Assembly. By the summer of 1920, 35 states had ratified the Amendment, bringing it just one state shy of the constitutional majority needed to make it law. When the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to ratify on August 18, 1920, Tennessee became that crucial final state, earning itself the nickname The Perfect 36. Over the next year, we will be sharing stories of the women’s suffrage movement from across the state to celebrate Tennessee’s unique role in this major turning point in American history. The first story in our series explores the origins of the women’s suffrage movement in the Volunteer State.

In a letter to her husband on March 31, 1776, founding mother Abigail Adams wrote, “Remember the ladies,” when establishing the burgeoning nation’s Code of Laws, and “[i]f particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” Adams was issuing a warning in the midst of the American Revolution that women, if denied representation, would revolt against the tyranny of men. So began a 144-year fight for women’s right to vote. Following her warning were suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, who, in 1848 organized the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Tennessee women, meanwhile, were challenging laws and asserting their rights at home.

As early as 1837, women in Cannon County, Tennessee petitioned the state legislature to pass anti-liquor laws intended to protect women from abusive men under the influence of alcohol. Similar social reform efforts related to prohibition came from the women of Marshall and Campbell counties in Tennessee. In 1849, the women of Fayette County petitioned the legislature for property rights. Various reform movements, such as abolition, education, women’s rights, and temperance, gave women the opportunity to organize politically, speak publicly, and develop the networks that would be integral to the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Legislative Petition No. 61, 1841, in which the women of Campbell County request the passage of anti-liquor laws in order to fight pauperism, crime, untimely deaths, and other “social evils.” Records of the Tennessee General Assembly, 1796-, RG 60

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, women turned their attention to the war effort, some advocating for the end of slavery and civil rights for the newly emancipated. Reconstruction saw the realization of some of these goals, but also produced disappointments and obstacles to the women’s suffrage movement. The 14th Amendment, passed in 1868, defined eligible voters as male citizens over twenty-one years old, introducing the first mention of gender to the Constitution. The 15th Amendment, passed in 1870, further affirmed that voting rights would not be denied on account of one’s race, but made no similar protections based on sex. These setbacks led a number of suffragists to pursue a strategy called “the New Departure,” by which they would vote illegally, undergo arrest, and challenge the law in court, as in the infamous case of Susan B. Anthony in 1872.

Susan B. Anthony as pictured in the book History of Woman Suffrage by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (New York, Fowler & Wells, 1881-[1922]).

That same year, Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, of Memphis, registered to vote in Tennessee. An outspoken advocate for women’s rights, Meriwether published her own newspaper, The Tablet, to express her controversial views on women’s suffrage. Despite her stance on women’s rights, Elizabeth had a complicated relationship with other progressive causes as a vocal supporter of the Confederacy and later the Ku Klux Klan. Her sister-in-law, Lide Meriwether, was active in the reform movement and established the state’s first women’s suffrage organization in Memphis in 1889. Many white Southerners, however, saw women’s suffrage as a threat to existing gender roles and worried it would increase the number of black voters. White suffragists, particularly in Southern states, attempted to address the latter concern by arguing that white women voters would outnumber black women voters. Problematic intersections between race and gender would continue to plague the women’s movement up to and beyond ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

Portrait of Elizabeth Avery Meriwether from her book Recollections of 92 Years, 1824-1916 (Tennessee Historical Commission, 1958).

Despite Southern resistance, the women’s suffrage movement continued to grow in Tennessee with organizations emerging in Maryville in 1893 and Nashville in 1894. A total of ten suffrage organizations formed across the state by the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897, where members met to hear addresses from leading suffragists and formed a statewide organization. The Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association (TESA) held state-level conventions in the three grand divisions, but had the special privilege of hosting the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) convention in May 1914. Disagreement among TESA members over the location led to a rift in the organization, with Lizzie Crozier French, of Knoxville, ultimately becoming president of the newly formed TESA, Inc. and Nashville serving as the convention’s host city. Around the same time, African American men and women across the state were taking up women’s suffrage through debates and lectures at venues like the Majestic Theatre in Nashville. Black and white suffragists, however, continued to work separately, in part because white women feared that the enfranchisement of black women would dissuade white men from supporting the cause.

A booklet containing the by-laws of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, general surveys of work with reports from each league, and notes from the proceedings of the Eighth Annual Convention, 1916. Frances Holder Overall Papers, 1867-1918

The entrance of the United States into World War I, however, led many suffrage organizations, particularly those affiliated with NAWSA, to redirect their activities to the war effort. One exception to this disruption was the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Beginning as the Congressional Union in 1914, the NWP was founded by Alice Paul who believed that suffragists should pursue a constitutional amendment instead of focusing on suffrage legislation at the state level. In January 1917, NWP members began protesting the White House with banners that referred to President Woodrow Wilson as “Kaiser Wilson” and asked, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” Joining them in 1919 was Sue Shelton White, of Jackson, Tennessee, who was arrested and forced to serve five days in jail. She was one of many women arrested during these demonstrations.

This headline proclaiming, “Suffragists Burn Wilson in Effigy; Sue White Leader,” appeared in the February 10, 1919 issue of the Nashville Tennessean. Tennessee Electronic Library, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Nashville Tennessean

Thanks to the groundwork laid by multiple generations of suffragists over many decades, the women of Tennessee stood ready to push the 19th Amendment across the finish line and bring votes for women to every state in the nation. Stay tuned for more Suffrage Stories as we continue this centennial commemoration. In the meantime, explore the history of this movement through our online collection Women’s Suffrage in Tennessee in the Tennessee Virtual Archive.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

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