This post was co-written by Dr. Randolph Hollingsworth (coordinator for the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project) and Dr. Margaret Spratt (coordinator for the Tennessee entries for the Women and Social Movements in the U.S. project on woman suffrage) as they consider a proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a community outreach project to include both Kentucky and Tennessee:
In Kentucky, the suffragists Laura Clay and Madeline McDowell Breckinridge held a debate in 1919 focusing on the differences in political ideology that impact state and municipal powers as a check on federal power. In Tennessee, well-organized pro-suffrage groups put pressure on the governor and state legislature to become the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. It was a contentious battle in both states with a dramatic ending that illustrates numerous issues surrounding voting rights. Issues surrounding voting rights today connect strongly with woman suffrage history. Some examples of how the main questions connect with historical events are:
- How does voting contribute to one’s role as a citizen? Examples: Legislators in the Gilded Age were often swayed by the argument that allowing women the right to vote would “clean up” the political corruption and halt the excesses of the era’s robber barons and the horrifying violence of white supremacists. Women’s perspectives, they thought, would bring new views on how to build a better nation. Under Kentucky’s state constitution, persons convicted of a felony are stripped of their rights to vote, hold public office, own a firearm or serve on a jury. Today in only three states (KY, FL, IO) disenfranchises citizens with past criminal convictions for non-violent crimes.
- Where does the authority reside to regulate voting rights? How should that authority be implemented? Examples: Debates raged about whether voting rights should be legislated at the national, state or the local level. That debate continues today with the most recent example of Secretaries of State in a number of states refusing efforts by a Presidential commission to provide detailed voter data. The basic issue is to determine the balance between federal and state powers - whether we should have a national database determining citizenship status for voting or keep voter registration issues at the state and local levels.
- Who or what groups should determine what restrictions might be instituted on who can vote? What qualifications for voting such as literacy, race, immigration status, are acceptable in a democratic society? Examples: Factions were concerned about allowing African American and immigrant women to vote with passage of the “Susan B. Anthony” amendment - that which became the 19th Amendment. Today, while easing voter restrictions might garner higher voter turnouts, many states are working to set up voter ID laws which have been shown to suppress minority votes.
The history of the U.S. is crucial to understanding the meaning of the right to vote today. The foundation of a representative government posited John Locke is the citizen who is vested in the community: in colonial times this meant property ownership. Some women owned property and had the right to vote – but with the new nation being built after the American Revolution, state constitutions reinstated older misogynistic traditions from Europe and by 1807, New Jersey was the last of the colonial era to disenfranchise women. Nevertheless, women of the New Republic were seen as crucial participants in developing the morals and understandings of the youth who would become active citizens in their hometowns, states, and in the new nation. Kentucky became the first in the nation to pass a statewide woman suffrage law. Kentucky’s law passed in 1838 allowed female heads-of-household to vote in elections deciding on taxes and local boards for the county “common school” system.
We know today – as did the political leaders in the nineteenth century – that an active citizen is one that is able to gather in a group to voice grievances and discuss solutions to present to their political representatives, hold public office themselves, or serve on a jury. But even more importantly, voting is part of establishing a collective political voice needed to maintain a democracy. Studies of people today have shown that individuals who vote are more likely to give to charity, volunteer, attend school board meetings, and are more actively involved in their communities. We need all our citizens to become active – and raise our participation rates in voting during local, state and national elections.
In the past, however, people of color and all women were left out of this definition of citizenship. Much of our historical narratives, both at the national level and in local history site interpretations, leave out the history of woman suffrage. These Community Conversations can raise the visibility of state and local histories of activism and debates over whether or not women (of all backgrounds and experiences) were full citizens with the right to vote.
Kentucky was crucial as a gateway to the South for women’s rights activists. Lucy Stone came through Louisville in November 1853 – wearing her own version of Amelia Bloomer trousers – earned $600 with thousands packing the halls each night. During the Civil War, Dr. Mary Walker was mustered in and served as the head of the female prison in Louisville – earning the Medal of Honor for her bravery under fire which she wore with her full male attire despite arrests. But dress reform efforts were not part of an effort to reject womanhood. Their activism through choice of clothing was to display women’s readiness for rigorous participation in public reform movements and political events. Kentuckians, while most were skeptical, began to endorse dress reform and the accompanying physical education efforts that were associated with less restrictive clothing. Tennessean women too were always involved in horseriding, and one of the earliest competitions between the two states was on the racetrack in the Sport of Champions. Eventually bicycling, automobile driving, basketball and calisthenics become a part of Kentucky and Tennessee women’s exercise, proving that women’s bodies could sustain the physical efforts required of an active citizenry.
After the Civil War, the 13th Amendment was ratified by 2/3 of the states; ratification came quickly in Tennessee but not in Kentucky until 1976. The newly freed people celebrated in both states assuming that they would become citizens like their former masters. On January 1, 1866, Lexington’s Main Street was filled with African Americans in a military parade, followed by Black businesspeople and several hundred children with political speeches at Lexington Fairgrounds (now the University of Kentucky). By March a Black Convention was held in Lexington to discuss equal rights for Blacks. The next year, for July 4th, a barbecue organized in Lexington by Black women included speeches made by both Black and by White speakers in favor of black suffrage and ratification of the 14th Amendment. That fall, another Black Convention included a debate on how to gain full civil rights for Blacks, including the right to vote and the right to testify in court against whites. In Tennessee, which had also very quickly ratified the 14th Amendment, allowing for three African American men to be elected to the legislature and many others elected to municipal and state offices.
On July 28, 1868, the 14th Amendment was ratified (again not by Kentucky) – granting full citizenship rights to “all persons born or naturalized in the U.S.” which included the former slaves as well as immigrant families who had been denied their rights. It also for the first time included the term “male inhabitants” in relation to those with the right to vote unhindered in federal elections. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in her newspaper The Revolution in 1868: “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book…” She asserted that immigrants and blacks were uneducated, thus not qualified to vote. This attitude generally predominated in both the north and the south, but in the former slave states, this idea was honed into both civil action and legal opinion quickly with the rise of the various societies proclaiming white supremacy.
This controversy spilled over into the women’s rights movement. Most most people today are familiar with the group of 68 women and 32 men in 1848 that met at Seneca Falls and signed the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Fewer are aware that there were other gatherings, and in 1850 the first National Women’s Rights Convention met in Worcester, Massachusetts with over 1000 attendees and delegates from at least 11 states. So it was from the 11th National Women’s Rights Convention and a merger with former abolitionists that the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) formed after the Civil War to lobby the new federal government and the states for full rights for all citizens. In 1867 the AERA campaigned in New York and Kansas for stronger suffrage and civil rights. Virginia Penny of Louisville is elected Vice-President - her first book, The Employments of Women: A Cyclopaedia of Woman's Work, on the economics of women’s work was recently published (1863). Also in 1867, the first suffrage association in the South is in Kentucky – Glendale, with 20 members.
Kentuckians participate in the split in the organization that occurs in May through November of 1869. With the fear of the oncoming victory of the 15th Amendment, two separate women’s groups for suffrage emerge: National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). The 15th Amendment was ratified February 3, 1870 (again not by Kentucky), and emphasized that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other means, however Southern states were able to effectively disenfranchise African Americans until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when the majority of African Americans in the South were registered to vote.
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Blackwell, and Julia Ward Howe of the AWSA were staunch abolitionists, and strongly supported securing the right to vote for African American men. They believed that the Fifteenth Amendment would be in danger of failing to pass in Congress if it included the vote for women. The AWSA believed success could be more easily achieved through state-by-state campaigns. On the other side of the split in the American Equal Rights Association, opposing the Fifteenth Amendment, were "irreconcilables" Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who formed the NWSA to secure women's enfranchisement through a federal constitutional amendment. This group supported the current emphasis of the Democratic Party that white supremacy must be maintained, especially in regards to voting.
Woman suffrage entered the public forum in Tennessee in 1876 when a Mississippi suffragist, Mrs. Napoleon Cromwell, spoke before the male delegates to the state Democratic convention held in Nashville. Her ten-minute speech asked the assembly to adopt a resolution for woman suffrage. Her appeal was based in terms of white supremacy. She reasoned that the white race would not be united unless white women were enfranchised. She pointed out that former male slaves could vote, but the wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters of those present at the convention could not. The delegates applauded but they also laughed, treating her speech as a joke. No resolution was passed.
Black men finally voted in the Kentucky governor’s race for the first time in 1871; much later than in Tennessee. By 1872, Black Kentuckians won the right to testify in courts in trials involving white people. Black women tended to see their own suffrage rights as a significant part of this historic effort as their race was finally being acknowledged as full citizens. However, there were many strategies taken by which to deny Blacks and immigrants access to their right to vote. For example, the city charter in Lexington, Kentucky was amended in 1871 to delegate power to the City Council to elect the mayor and all the city officials, thus negating the anticipated power of the black vote. The revised charter also imposed a poll tax on voting which effectively restrained voter participation for many. In both states, the police and white vigilante groups aggressively enforced new, broadly defined vagrancy or sundown laws that restricted the movements of Blacks, immigrants and poor whites. Land transfers often included exclusion clauses that disallowed black ownership. By 1890 the Tennessee legislature had crafted new laws for “electoral reform” that essentially disenfranchised most Blacks and many more poor whites. As in Kentucky, the effort to codify a “Jim Crow” culture of segregation included the violent destruction of a multi-party electoral system, leaving only the Democratic Party in its wake. Those seeking progressive laws on behalf of women and children often met a monolithic barrier at local, district and state levels.
In May 1879 the eldest daughter of Mary Jane Warfield and Cassius Clay of Kentucky, Mary Barr Clay (already a Vice-President with AWSA) attended a NWSA convention in St. Louis and is elected a Vice-President of NWSA. She and her mother Mary Jane invited AWSA’s Lucy Stone to stay with them in June 1879 when Mary Barr and her sister Sallie were working to start up the first permanent suffrage organization in Kentucky and the South: the Fayette County Equal Suffrage Association. This group lobbied the Kentucky legislature so that in 1880 the Kentucky Agricultural & Mechanical College became the first publicly-chartered higher education institution for men in Kentucky to begin admitting women. 1882 saw their first organized push to lobby the Kentucky legislature (the Senate’s Judiciary Committee), with Mary Barr Clay, her sister Sallie Clay, and John Ward of Louisville for both municipal and presidential suffrage, property rights for married women and guardianship of children.
In 1883, J.S. Galloway of Shelby County (Memphis, Tenn.) introduced a bill in the Tennessee legislature outlining limited voting rights for women to the state senate. The bill proposed that Tennessee women would have the right to vote for school commissioners and other school-related elections. The measure died in the judiciary committee later that term. Meanwhile, throughout the 1880s in both states, the temperance movement carried the torch for woman suffrage. For example, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union held its national convention in Nashville in 1887 and was addressed by a leading national suffrage figure, Anna Howard Shaw. Not all members of the WCTU supported woman suffrage, but often the local or state officers were also suffragists (e.g., Laura Clay in Kentucky). No woman was more important to both causes in Tennessee than Lide Meriwether of Memphis. Elected state president of the WCTU in 1884, she waged a quiet campaign within the organization for the vote. Success came in 1889 when the membership of the Tennessee WCTU unanimously voted for a suffrage plank to their platform at their state convention. That same year, a group of women in Memphis organized the first woman suffrage league in the state. The 45 members elected Lide Meriwether as their president. Meriwether went on a speaking tour around the state and by the end of 1895, five new clubs were established. Over the next two years, five additional suffrage societies joined them. The largest was in Memphis, but others met regularly in smaller communities such as Tullahoma (south central Tennessee), Maryville (near Knoxville), and Jonesboro in the Appalachian Mountains.
In October 1881, at the AWSA meeting in Louisville led by Lucy Stone, the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Association was founded – the first to represent a state in the South. Laura Clay, the youngest of Mary Jane Clay’s daughters, was elected president. At the age of 32, Laura Clay was a farm manager educated at Sayre School, the University of Michigan and the University of Kentucky, and she was an officer in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union advocating for women and children: a women’s dormitory and dean at the State University, establishment of juvenile courts and detention homes for girls, and raising the age of sexual consent from 12 to 16. Mary Barr Clay was elected President of the AWSA in 1883, and John White (R-Louisville) advocated for woman suffrage in US Congressional committees. Meanwhile, Black Kentucky women are organizing as educators and civic leaders in their own neighborhoods, rarely speaking in public. However, a powerful statement on behalf of Black women was made in July 1887 when Mary E. Britton gave a suffrage speech at the Kentucky Colored Teachers Association meeting in Danville.
After several years of negotiations, the AWSA and the NWSA merged in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The leaders of this new organization include Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, Frances Willard, Mary Church Terrell, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Anna Howard Shaw. Laura Clay became the best-known southern suffragist in these conventions and led many campaigns through the South and the West on behalf of the NAWSA. Meanwhile she supported the efforts in Kentucky to proliferate city/county suffrage associations – seven of them by 1890. With the Kentucky Constitutional Convention in December 1890, the suffrage leaders see the opportunity to push for the right for the legislature to enact suffrage in any form.
1894 is a turning point for Kentucky women activists:
- In February Sallie Clay Bennett spoke before the U.S. Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage emphasizing the right of black men and women to vote because all are citizens; she wrote a political treatise that was presented to Congress by Senator Lindsay and Rep McCreary on behalf of the NAWSA, "asking Congress to protect white and black women equally with black men against State denial of the right to vote for members of Congress and the Presidential electors in the States…” – writing private letters to every member of Congress and sending copies to editors of newspapers in every state
- In March Josephine Henry succeeded in her lobbying with the Kentucky law for Married Woman’s Property Act signed into law by Gov. John Young Brown. But her work on the Woman’s Bible led to a break with Laura Clay, the president of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) so she gave up her Fayette County ERA and KERA memberships.
- Also in March, school suffrage is granted to women in second-class cities in Kentucky (Lexington, Covington, and Newport) and in 1895 the local associations begin door-to-door campaigns with information on qualifications for registering, timing and how to vote: thousands of women turn out for the school board elections for 1895 (5000 in Covington, 2600 in Newport, 2000 in Lexington with 4 women elected to Board of Education). Lexington’s joint committee with Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky, Fayette County ERA, and Women’s Christian Temperance Union had crafted a series of lectures and mass meetings on “Duties of Citizenship” that created ticket of candidates for election. “Current Events” becomes a required part of each local meeting.
- The Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs (KFWC) was founded (whites only) as nonpartisan, volunteer service organization. African-American women in Lexington spearheaded a separate club movement following the advice of Mary Church Terrell and Martha Murray Washington to form local groups focused on urban free kindergartens, married women’s and mothers’ clubs, connecting informally across the state. By 1904 the Day Law forces the segregation of all educational institution – and Berea, an important site for Black women seeking higher education, was closed to them. Meanwhile, Kentucky’s public schools are shamefully insufficient. By 1908 Madeline McDowell Breckinridge led the campaign for women’s school suffrage by arguing not “whether women are fit for school suffrage but whether men are fit for it.” In 1908, 1910, 1912, the KFWC lobbied to regain school suffrage, finally winning it back in 1912 with an added proviso (just for women) of a “literacy” test. Since 1894 Newport’s Nathanial Southgate Shaler of Immigration Restriction League, had advocated literacy tests for the entry and naturalization of immigrants. This proviso for enfranchisement mollified many white supremacists who feared opening the voter rolls to women would ease restrictions on Black citizens, men and women.
A good example of Kentucky’s uniqueness in the national story came in October-November 1901. A swell of political activity by black women supporting the Republican Party turn out to register for school board elections - more black women registered to vote than white women. Though the Democrats win in November, newspapers and politicians complained that “illiterates” and “prostitutes” had overwhelmed the women’s voter booths. In the next legislative session Billy Klair in the House of Representatives and Col. J. Embry Allen in the Senate led a campaign to repeal all women’s right to vote in school elections. The KY General Assembly rejected a compromise effort by the KERA/KFWC/WCTU Committee on Retention of School Suffrage for Women (Laura Clay, Mary Creegan Roark, Ida Withers Harrison, and Frances Beauchamp) who suggested adding a literacy test to voter applications. The fear of organized women’s political power caused the repeal of Kentucky women’s suffrage in January 1902.
By this point, there is a clear connection between Kentucky and Tennessee suffrage activists who are sharing ideas, strategies and resources. Tennessee’s white suffragists met at a state convention in Nashville in 1897 to hear a number of prominent Southern suffrage leaders. Laura Clay of Kentucky spoke on “The Bible and Woman as Found in It.” Mrs. Flora E. Huntingdon of Memphis demanded the ballot as “a protection to the helpless widow and to the great army of young women who were forced to work for themselves and in many cases to support worthless husbands and brothers.” Frances Griffin from Alabama spoke to the race issue in her convention speech when she denied that woman suffrage would be a threat to white supremacy in the South “since there were more white then negro women in that section.” Attendees then formed the Tennessee Equal Rights Association and invited local groups to affiliate with the state organization. They made Lide Meriwether their president, and Bettie M. Donelson of Nashville, secretary. They held a second convention in 1900, this time in Memphis. Carrie Chapman Catt of New York was the featured speaker, and during the business session, Lide Meriwether resigned her office but was made lifetime honorary president. Meanwhile the first convention of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs was held in Nashville in the same year, 1897. The Kentucky Association of Colored Women’s Clubs launched in 1903-04 with 112 clubs, and in Tennessee a state association started in 1906 by clubwomen meeting on the campus of Lane College in Jackson. Suffrage is only a part of the efforts undertaken by their clubs; and, their motto, Lifting As We Climb, expressed their primary mission of supporting the whole community in which they lived through self-help.
In 1906 a powerful connection between the two states’ white suffrage leaders was crafted when a new convention took place in Memphis. Twelve delegates present from states throughout the South formed the Southern Woman Suffrage Conference with Laura Clay as president. During the convention, Lide Meriwether spoke on the influence of the vote for women on the South’s “race problem.” Clay addressed the legal status of women in southern states, ignoring the status of Black women.
Out of this meeting came the organization of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association. Initially, it consisted of members who all lived in Memphis, but then in 1910, Lizze Crozier French spearheaded the effort to organize in Knoxville. The Knoxville group did not join the state organization. However, the state association again met in convention in Memphis in February 1911. A few months later, the Nashville Equal Suffrage League organized and stressed that its purpose was to advance the suffrage cause “quietly and earnestly avoiding militant methods as unnecessary to southern women.” Two additional groups in the eastern part of the state formed in 1911; one in Morristown and the other in Chattanooga. Suffrage societies proliferated throughout Tennessee during the next few years. At least 78 towns boasted of a group, and major cities such as Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville had more than one. Students at Tennessee colleges also organized. After a speech by Kentuckian Madeline MacDowell Breckenridge in 1913, students at Belmont College in Nashville formed a league. Vanderbilt students organized after the 1914 National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in Nashville. Martin College in Pulaski was organized by the local Equal Suffrage League. Although the membership in both college and town societies was overwhelmingly female, some cities such as Nashville and Chattanooga had separate male leagues. They consisted of only white men and women. Two separate state associations formed in 1914—the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association and the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, Incorporated. They both affiliated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association and in 1918 combined to form the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Association.
In 1912 Laura Clay stepped down as president of KERA in favor of her distant cousin Madeline McDowell Breckinridge; and in 1913 she was elected VP-at-large of the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference, founded to win the vote through state enactment. Mass demonstrations by suffragists really get going by 1913. The first big demonstration in Washington DC included Black suffragists, though there were controversies on where their clubs should march in the procession. The riots in the streets that accompanied the march showed everyone how dangerous these expressions of protest could be. The first suffrage demonstration in Kentucky – and in the South – consisted of a single float added in without much notice to the huge centennial celebration parade in Louisville for the victory of the War of 1812. A group led by Laura Clay including several Kentucky county suffrage clubs showed up for the NAWSA’s silent protest along the streets leading to the Democratic National Convention hall in St. Louis in 1914: “The Golden Lane” of women in white dresses, yellow sashes and yellow parasols. With the call for a National Suffrage Day in 1915, Lexington celebrated May Day with an automobile parade and suffrage songs and speeches at Duncan Park. The women of Fayette County Equal Rights Association were gratified in 1916 with their organizing of National Suffrage Day in Lexington. With over 1,000 marchers, including representatives from all over the state and a Men’s League, it was the biggest suffrage parade ever in Kentucky.
The split in NAWSA occurred over the issue of how to design mass demonstrations to protest the right to vote. In 1917 the faction then called the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage was picketing the White House leading to violence and arrests. The Tennessee Woman Suffrage Association sent a telegram to Alice Paul, founder of what later was named the National Woman’s Party, stating: “Your methods are profoundly hurtful to all American womanhood and if persisted in will undoubtedly defeat the cause for which you strive.”
Historians are still searching for evidence of participation in these efforts in Washington D.C. by women from Kentucky and Tennessee. We have so far found only two who were part of the militant arm of the national movement: one young woman from Louisville, Kentucky, Caroline Leech, who was part of the groups recruited from colleges. When in 1918 the National Women’s Party burned President Wilson’s speeches and his picture in effigy in Lafayette Park, KERA activists publicly denounced this tactic for protesting the lack of progress at the federal level for voting rights. Sue Shelton White of Jackson, Tennessee was arrested and jailed in Washington, D.C. on February 10, 1919, for burning an effigy of President Wilson. Soon released, White and 23 of her suffrage comrades boarded a special train, the “Suffrage Prison Special” for a tour of the country. They stopped in Chattanooga a few days later where the mayor declared that the city was “big enough and broad enough to listen to their story.” The president of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Association denounced the group of militant suffragists who had visited the state.
The Tennessee Woman Suffrage Association participated in local parades, staged May Day celebrations, held public debates, circulated petitions, lobbied both federal and state legislators and handed out literature. They used social events such as teas, luncheons, and balls to recruit new members and raise funds. They also encouraged their members to be better lobbyists by holding classes in oration, civics and politics. The Chattanooga group solicited the services of a national worker to direct a “suffrage school.” As in Kentucky, African Americans in Tennessee were aware of these activities and sometimes discussed woman suffrage at public meetings. In 1913, a Nashville newspaper reported a debate to be held “between members of their race” on woman suffrage.
With U.S. involvement in World War I, suffragists in Kentucky and Tennessee threw themselves into war work, selling Liberty Bonds, volunteering with the Red Cross, serving in the Navy and Army, and helping to register potential service members. On National Registration Day in 1917, the Fayette County Equal Rights Association organized a Patriotic Parade with girls on horses and more dressed as Red Cross nurses to march on Main Street, each accompanied by soldiers from Camp Stanley. Suffragists operated canteens, engaged in civil defense drills, harvested crops, and volunteered as nurses in influenza wards. Although little energy was spent specifically on suffrage activities per se during this period, the women demonstrated their worth as engaged citizens and in the eyes of many, broke down traditional views of womanhood.
Yet public opinion slowly became more favorable toward enfranchisement for women in the U.S. as the Great War descended on Europe. At a 1914 convention in Nashville, the governor of the state, Ben W. Hooper admitted that “Our people are not swift in the pursuit of strange doctrines, but they are as a rule open to conviction and tolerant of differences of opinion. Whatever may be our views of the necessity and the efficacy of woman suffrage most of us have sense enough to know that it is surely coming in every state in the republic.” Although mostly unorganized, opposition to woman suffrage in Tennessee used the pulpit and the newspapers to express its opinion. One Nashville minister warned that “When she takes the ballot box, you’ve given her a coffin in which to bury the dignities of womanhood.” A Nashville lawyer and husband of the first president of the Tennessee anti-suffrage association cited “biological” and “governmental” reasons as to why women should not vote. He wrote that only those citizens who bear arms should be able to decide on questions about war and enforcing laws. He also described Helen Keller as a zealous suffragette who urged members of the NAACP to “advance gladly towards our common heritage of life, liberty, and light, undivided by race or color or creed.” Tennessee suffragists spent much effort refuting such anti-suffrage arguments.
In 1915, Tennessee suffragists began to lobby their state legislators for the vote. The governor recommended an amendment to the state constitution. A resolution to that effect passed both the house and the senate and was signed by the governor, but this was only the first step in a long process. Before it could become a constitutional amendment, the resolution needed a two-thirds majority in each house in the following session and the approval of the majority of voters in the state.
The new governor, Tom C. Rye, urged the new session of 1917 to pass this amendment. The legislature chose not to endorse complete enfranchisement but rather introduced a bill for presidential and municipal suffrage for women. The house passed the new bill; the senate defeated it. A number of senators were concerned that it would result in more African Americans voting. One even said it would be “suicidal in his county because of its negro population.” At the next legislative session in 1919, the same bill was introduced. This time, both houses passed it and the governor signed this limited woman suffrage bill into law.
While Tennessee women voted in municipal elections, Kentucky’s suffrage leaders continued to search for a better solution than what the NAWSA was offering – the federal amendment to the U.S. Constitution that the Kentucky Equal Rights Association under the leadership of Madeline McDowell Breckinridge was also advocating. In August 1918 Laura Clay, Mrs. H.G. Foster (formerly a leader of the Washington state suffrage club) and several other Kentucky women formed the “Citizens Committee” which formally left the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, choosing to argue for a state by state approach to woman suffrage for whites only. Clay also quit the NAWSA in June 1919 and turned to securing a state suffrage bill in Kentucky. Presidential suffrage for women in Kentucky was signed into law on March 29, 1920. On October 18, 1919, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge (representing KERA) and Laura Clay (representing the Citizen’s Committee) debated before the Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky on the merits of a federal approach to suffrage. Clay argued that federal overreach threatened the very concept of citizenship in the US since voting rights were authorized by the state. The judges proclaimed Clay the winner of the debate. Nevertheless, by June 4, 1919, Congress passed a federal suffrage amendment with the same wording from the “Susan B. Anthony amendment” offered up decades before, initiating the campaign to obtain ratification by 36 state legislatures (3/4 majority at that time). “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
The Tennessee state constitution provided that a federal amendment could only be voted upon by a legislature that was in place before the amendment was submitted. The Susan B. Anthony amendment came to the current Tennessee legislature elected in 1918. However, the decision of the United States Supreme Court shed doubt on the validity of that state constitutional provision. By the summer of 1920, 35 states had already ratified the amendment. Tennessee had done nothing. Both Democratic and Republican parties were urging their candidates in the upcoming elections to facilitate passage of the amendment. Governor A.H. Roberts was seeking reelection and the pressure on him to call a special legislative session was intense. Even the president, Woodrow Wilson, sent a telegram asking him to call a special session. On August 7, 1920, Governor Roberts issued a formal announcement of a special session to convene on August 9 with the purpose of considering ratification of what would become the Nineteenth Amendment.
State suffrage and anti-suffrage activists had been working in high gear over the summer. Opponents of the federal amendment launched their campaign from a hotel in the capitol and relied heavily on leaders from other states, including Laura Clay of Kentucky who championed state rights over a federal constitutional amendment. One opponent warned that legislators should “not make men of our Tennessee women.” Many lobbyists and some legislators relied heavily on racial slurs and white supremacy arguments to further their cause. They warned that African American women would dominate southern politics. They predicted that granting women the vote would lead to racial intermarriage and racial equality. One piece of propaganda warned Tennesseans of the great danger of the federal government, and that “under a Republic administration….a negro policeman may be appointed from Washington to enforce our laws….”
After several days of hearings and debate, the Tennessee State Senate voted for ratification of the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment” on August 13. On August 17, the house committee on constitutional convention and amendments urged ratification. Debate followed and eventually the house adopted ratification by a majority of fifty to forty-six. With Tennessee as the thirty-sixth state to ratify, the fight for the Nineteenth Amendment was over. On November 2, 1920, women across the entire United States vote for the first time – and depending on the local or state restrictions, black women joined in this new right. The suffragists’ state clubs had by then all transitioned into their respective states’ League of Women Voters. The fight for using those voting rights in actual practice, and educating communities on why voting was so important, had just begun.