Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Women Opposing Women: Josephine Pearson and the Anti Suffrage Argument

By Mary DePeder

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 second story in our series investigates the women opposed to ratifying the 19th amendment.

Broadside outlining anti-suffrage arguments against the 19th amendment.

Vowing to uphold her mother’s dying wish to see the fight for women’s suffrage end in defeat, Josephine Pearson saw the battle for Tennessee as a righteous crusade to defend the fallen Confederacy and traditional, southern gender norms. Her zealous dedication to uplifting true womanhood through feisty, anti-suffragist essays earned her a place as president of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage and the Southern Woman's League for the Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. At every turn, Pearson and her band of anti-suffs worked tirelessly to unravel the actions of pro-suffragist efforts, coming to a head in the summer of 1920 as the tug of war between yellow and red roses intensified.

Photograph of anti-suffrage leader, Josephine Pearson. Josephine A. Pearson Papers, 1860-1943.

Stoking the political fires through sensationalized cartoons, pamphlets, and newspaper columns, anti-suffragists capitalized on the nation’s fears during a period of incredible flux. In the aftermath of World War I, women’s roles and attitudes toward the public sphere shifted dramatically. Long held beliefs of Victorian womanhood and the ideology of separate spheres between women and men slowly eroded under the guise of the “new woman.” A growing momentum among women instead suggested that they could create a life outside of marriage and motherhood that both economically sustained and intellectually stimulated them.

This curtailed Pearson’s belief in true womanhood which demanded unwavering subordination of women to men and their ultimate dependency on male guidance and economic support. A woman belonged in the home, caring for her family, and needed protection from the corrupt political sphere. Rapidly changing ideas on women’s roles inside and outside the home, however, threatened Pearson and the anti-suffs desired way of life. For the anti-suffragist movement, the defeminization of the American woman, brought on by an increase of women in the workforce and looser morals in terms of fashion and courtship, would spell destruction for the sacred American family. And, as far as the Antis were concerned, the only group to blame for such evils against society were Suffs teeming the line of decency and pushing women closer to the debauched world of politics.

Political cartoon circulated by anti-suffragists warning the public about the dangers of swapped gender roles if suffrage were to pass. Josephine A. Pearson Papers, 1860-1943.

To retaliate, the Antis sought to construct an image of the suffragists as mannish, socialist- leaning rebels hellbent on destroying traditional gender roles. Political cartoons frequently captured this sentiment by depicting an empty home with unattended children, like the image below. Or, preying on the nation’s fear of feminized masculinity, anti-suffragist cartoons depicted households in which traditional gender roles were swapped. These images served to stir the public’s emotions, namely fear at the prospect of a crumbling, family unit, the very fabric of American life according to anti suffrage doctrine in which the wife and mother took center stage.

Anti-suffrage political cartoon anticipating the demise of the American family after the ratification of the 19th amendment. Josephine A. Pearson Papers, 1860-1943.

In response, suffragists widely publicized the image of Anne Dallas Dudley nestled alongside her small children reading. A perfect, domestic scene that would otherwise please anti-suffragist ideology, Dudley’s presence butted up against the Anti’s argument that suffrage for women meant empty homes and empty stomachs. More importantly, Dudley’s presence indicated that a woman could be both a loving mother and dedicated suffragist.

Photograph of Anne Dallas Dudley reading to her children. Bettie Mizell Donelson Family Papers, 1787-1938.

The most pressing threat Pearson and her anti-suffrage sisters capitalized on and exploited was the threat that full equality for women posed to white supremacy. Born and raised in the shadow of a post-Civil War South feverishly steeped in Lost Cause nostalgia, Pearson held fast to the belief that women’s suffrage would upend the social order of the south. Granting women the right to vote meant placing power in the hands of African American women, too. This was a frightening concept to the anti-suffrage campaign as they warned, through lectures and broadsides, that it would create an imbalance of power between the races. White women, they argued, would refuse to enter an integrated polling station preferring instead to stay home than cast their vote. Whereas, African American women would enthusiastically turn out to exercise their newfound political power, thereby threatening the white majority of the south. Moreover, ratifying the 19th amendment would bring about the demise of states’ rights. As Antis insisted, women’s equality would open the floodgates for racial equality as the federal government would enforce strict adherence to the 15th Amendment. All deemed wholly unacceptable and deadly to white supremacy.

Anti-suffrage broadside warning southern men of the dangers of women’s suffrage. Josephine A. Pearson Papers, 1860-1943.

The suffrage movement, in comparison, was not immune to racial prejudice. Rather, support for black suffragists was tentative, wavered often, and, at its worst, embraced racist rhetoric to achieve their own self-interests. For African American women, this meant cultivating their own organizations to fight for enfranchisement. In doing so, they were constantly caught between combating anti-suffrage rhetoric and violence and resisting pushback from suffrage leaders to hurry up and wait for white women to succeed before securing rights themselves.

Although Pearson’s efforts ultimately failed in the summer of 1920 with the passing of the 19th Amendment, the barriers anti-suffragists put in place were long lasting, especially for African American women. Following defeat, Josephine Pearson accepted a dean position with the Southern Seminary of Virginia. For suffrage leaders, the victory in Tennessee was a moment to savor and reflect on their hard-earned success. Their battle for equality was at long last won. For African American women, the success of the 19th Amendment was less clear-cut and in many ways, merely a starting point for full equality.

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

Friday, November 1, 2019

Tennessee State Library and Archives hosts “Family History Day” on the Saturday after Thanksgiving

Family gatherings, we all have them. Whether they are annual holidays like Thanksgiving, family reunions, or one-time occasions like birthday parties, weddings or funerals, these are times when our family members come together. Join archivist and professional genealogist Melissa Barker for a presentation entitled, “Family Gatherings: Dragging Genealogy Information Out of Your Family.” This workshop will give you tips and tricks to get your family members talking about family history, even if they don’t want to!

Barker’s professional genealogy expertise is in Tennessee records; she has been researching her own family history for the past 30 years. Barker is a Certified Archives Manager currently working as the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist. She lectures, teaches, and writes about the genealogy research process, researching in archives, and records preservation. Barker also conducts virtual webinar presentations across the United States for genealogical and historical societies and writes a popular blog entitled "A Genealogist in the Archives" and is the Reviews Editor for the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) magazine FORUM. In addition, Barker also writes bi-weekly advice columns at Abundant Genealogy and for her local newspaper.

The presentation will be held from 9:30 a.m. until 11 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 30, at the Library and Archives auditorium, and research assistance will be available until 4:30 p.m. While the workshop is free, reservations are required due to limited seating.

Please note that Library and Archives will be closed Thursday, Nov. 28, and Friday, Nov. 29, for the Thanksgiving holiday, so it is important to make reservations beforehand. Guests can register at:

The Library and Archives is located at 403 Seventh Avenue North, directly west of the State Capitol building in downtown Nashville. Parking is available around the Library and Archives building.

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