Tennessee and the 19th Amendment for Woman Suffrage

On August 18, 1920, Tennessee brought victory to the 72-year-long struggle to gain women the right to vote

The 19th (Susan B. Anthony) Amendment passed the U.S. House and Senate on June 4, 1919, and was sent to the states for ratification. To become part of the U.S. Constitution, the Amendment needed to be approved by 36 of the then 48 states. By July 1920, 35 states approved the amendment, and suffragists needed just one more state to reach the “Perfect 36.” Tennessee held the last, best hope.

When Gov. Albert H. Roberts called the Tennessee General Assembly into special session on August 9, 1919, the eyes of the country turned to the Volunteer State. Pro-suffragists and “antis” from around the state and nation descended on Nashville, intent on influencing the legislature. Tennessee’s War of the Roses commenced. And one man’s vote would ultimately decide the issue.

The National Suffrage Movement

Women worked for seven decades and three generations to win the right to vote, beginning with the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention for woman’s rights. By the early twentieth century, woman suffrage expanded into a mass movement with suffragists seeking voting rights at the local, state, and national levels. Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and Alice Paul, leader of the National Woman’s Party, helped focus the movement on achieving national voting rights through constitutional amendments in U.S. and state constitutions. By June 1919, the amendment had passed Congress. As state legislatures took up ratification resolutions, they set off a wildfire of activity by America’s women.

Tennessee’s Suffrage Movement

Tennessee women played a vital role in rallying support for the 19th Amendment.  Beginning in the 1870s, Tennessee women began advocating for the vote through programs at their local clubs. In May 1889, the state’s first woman suffrage league formed in Memphis with Lide Smith Meriwether president. By 1897, at least ten communities had suffrage leagues and Tennessee women created a statewide suffrage organization. Abby Crawford Milton of Chattanooga, Catherine Talty Kenny and Anne Dallas Dudley of Nashville, and others leaders traveled the state holding public meetings. The Volunteer State eventually formed more than 70 local suffrage leagues.  Most Tennessee suffragists affiliated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Others such as Sue Shelton White of Jackson joined the more radical National Woman’s Party. African American suffragists, including Mary Church Terrell originally of Memphis and Juno Frankie Seay Pierce of Nashville, advocated for both the vote and civil rights. In 1919, the Tennessee General Assembly granted women the right to vote in presidential and municipal elections, making the state a suffrage leader in the South and offering hope for all women in the 1920 effort.

Fearful that women’s participation in civic life would lead to the breakdown of the family order and that woman suffrage would empower more African Americans, some Tennessee women participated in the anti-suffrage movement. Monteagle educator turned activist Josephine A. Pearson led the anti-suffrage movement in Tennessee. She served as president for both the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage and the Southern Woman’s League for the Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.

The Tennessee General Assembly and the 19th Amendment

By the summer of 1920, 35 of the 36 states needed for ratification had approved the amendment. Eight states had rejected the amendment; five had not voted. Suffragists saw Tennessee as their last, best hope for ratification before the 1920 presidential election. On August 9, Governor Albert H. Roberts called a special session of the Tennessee General Assembly to consider the issue. Suffragists and “antis” descended on Nashville. Intent on influencing the legislature, both groups set up headquarters at the Hermitage Hotel, a popular gathering place just a block from the Capitol.  

In what became known as Tennessee’s War of the Roses, pro-suffrage activists wore yellow roses as a symbol of support, in stark contrast to the red roses of the opposition. Fierce lobbying commenced on both sides of the issue, but the resolution passed easily in the Tennessee State Senate.

Now women lobbied furiously to secure votes in the House of Representatives where the vote was extremely close, creating an even split among Tennessee state representatives. 

August 18, 1920: The Perfect 36

On August 18, 1920, suffragists and anti-suffragists packed the public galleries in the House chamber for its vote. Members and spectators wore yellow or red roses, reflecting their stance. The atmosphere was tense. 

The Speaker of the House, Seth Walker of Lebanon, served as the anti-suffrage leader although he had previously advocated for suffrage. Joseph Hanover of Memphis led the suffrage cause in the House. After Seth Walker tried unsuccessfully to table the amendment, which would have effectively “killed” the bill, the House was required to vote on the 19th Amendment. As the roll call began and votes were tallied, the youngest member of the House, 24-year old Harry Burn of Niota, faced a dilemma. In his coat pocket sat a 7-page letter from Febb Ensminger Burn, his mother. Among general news of the family farm, Febb used the letter to persuade her son to change his anti-suffrage stance, writing “hurrah and vote for suffrage!” As Burn’s name approached for roll call, the young man, sporting a red anti-suffrage rose, shocked the chamber by claiming “aye” for the amendment, thus breaking a tie and changing the course of history. 

After the General Assembly voted to approve the 19th Amendment, opponents worked feverishly to rescind the ratification vote on constitutional technicalities. They held mass “Indignation” meetings across the state and some “anti” legislators left the state.  Their efforts failed and on August 24, 1920, Governor Albert H. Roberts certified Tennessee’s ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Two days later, U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby issued a proclamation that officially declared the ratification of the 19th Amendment, making it part of the United States Constitution. Tennessee provided the 36th and final state needed to ratify this landmark amendment to the U.S. Constitution, earning itself the nickname “The Perfect 36.” Tennessee had given 27 million women the right to vote.

A Proud Legacy

After gaining the vote, Tennessee women used this new privilege to advance their causes, and in the process, helped change and expand the state’s political system. The state forever holds an important place in the national history of American citizenship and continues to lead for all. 

In 2019-2020, during the centennial year of the historic vote, Tennessee will celebrate its pivotal role in securing voting rights for American women. 

Compiled from Carole Bucy’s “Tennessee Women and the Vote: Tennessee’s Pivotal Role in the Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment,” Anastastia Sims’ article “Woman Suffrage Movement” from The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, Elizabeth Taylor’s book The Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee, and various resources from the Tennessee State Museum, the Tennessee State Library & Archives, Tennessee Historical Society, and the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection.