Our nation celebrates another birthday, and while the country may seem divided on many issues, this democratic nation still sparks pride in the hearts of patriots from sea to shining sea. Countless decisions by the men and women who came before us have woven the tapestry of the political landscape in which we live today. There was a time though, when women were not included in those choices and conversations, to say nothing of the polls.
The story of the 19th Amendment’s passage is one of the greatest in American history, particularly for this “great experiment we call democracy.” Those who persisted for 72 years to include women in the U.S. Constitution achieved their goal without firing a single shot or shedding one drop of human blood.
Ratification was obtained only after hundreds of campaigns in state after state as the suffragists met with defeat. (The correct term is “suffragist,” not suffragette. The British were the suffragettes and were considered more “radical,” so the Americans wanted to distinguish themselves and were referred to as “suffragists.” In the six-volume set, The History of Woman Suffrage, they call themselves “suffragists.”)
Few know that it was women seeking the vote who first picketed the White House for a political cause, that these courageous women faced jail, hunger strikes, forced feedings, years of organizing, ridicule, and great disappointment after the Civil War when the 14th and 15th Amendments excluded women from voting. Yet they persevered until victory was achieved in Nashville on August 18, 1920.
Passing through Congress
When the 19th Amendment finally passed Congress on June 4, 1919, the battleground shifted to the states, where 36 of the then-48 states were needed for ratification.
Wisconsin became the first state to ratify on June 10, 1919. A string of victories followed. California was the 18th vote for ratification on November 1, 1919. By the summer of 1920, 35 states had ratified, 9 had rejected it, 3 had refused any consideration (Connecticut, Vermont, and Florida), and, with no other state even close to ratifying, the pro-suffrage forces looked to Tennessee.
The pressure began for Gov. A.H. Roberts to call a special session. The opposition was so fierce that he called the special session for August 9 (conveniently after his party primary). Across the state, women had organized for many years and were ready for the challenge.
Carrie Chapman Catt, one of the premier suffrage strategists and a protégé of Susan B. Anthony, knew this final battle in Tennessee was going to be tougher than any. She came to Nashville in July expecting to stay a few days at The Hermitage Hotel but was there for nearly six weeks. She wrote on August 15: “I’ve been here a month. It is hot, muggy, nasty, and this last battle desperate. Even if we win, we who have been here will never remember it with anything but a shudder.”
“The War of the Roses”
This ‘war’ began with the anti-suffrage forces wearing the American Beauty red rose depicting their femininity and their efforts “to save Southern womanhood.” The pro-suffrage forces countered with the yellow rose. The yellow rose, along with other yellow flowers, was prevalent in suffrage imagery.
Thanks to the enlightened men in the state Senate who voted 25-4 in favor of the Amendment on August 13, the state House was poised to change the course of American history. After the Senate’s overwhelming vote in favor, Catt wrote: “We are one-half of one state away from victory.”
Why Can’t Mother Vote?
There were heroes in the House, starting with Memphis’ Joe Hanover, an Independent who was the second youngest member of the General Assembly as well as a Polish immigrant. A naturalized citizen, he believed so strongly in the right to vote for all Americans that he ran for the House so he could cast his vote in favor of the 19th Amendment. He became the floor leader at the request of Catt and kept the pro-suffrage forces together, which was no easy task. Bill Haltom (www.billhaltom.com) of Memphis details it in Why Can’t Mother Vote? Joseph Hanover and the Unfinished Business of Democracy.
Carol Lynn Yellin of Memphis wrote the definitive article called “Countdown in Tennessee,” which appeared in American Heritage magazine in December 1978.
The 72-year struggle had come down to one last vote in the House. Rep. Hanover led a united Memphis/Shelby County delegation with Rep. T.K. Riddick of Memphis, who introduced the amendment, emphasizing that refusal to enfranchise women was “a relic of barbarism.”
Rep. Hanover knew he was two votes short going into the August 18 session. When the roll call began, the first two recorded votes were “aye” followed by four “nays.”
Two other heroes emerged
Rep. Banks Turner, a lawyer/farmer from rural West Tennessee, had been considered an Anti. Yet, he unexpectedly voted twice against tabling the motion, keeping it alive. Rep. Harry Burn, a Republican from East Tennessee, who was the youngest member of the General Assembly, had been counted as a sure Anti since he wore the red rose. But he had not told anyone of a letter he had received that morning from his mother, Febb Ensminger Burn, who urged him to vote for ratification.
When the final vote was tallied for ratification, it passed thanks to Reps. Burn and Turner and Hanover’s legislative skill.
Gov. Roberts signed the ratification papers and sent them on to Washington, D.C., where Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the papers on August 26 making votes for women the law of the land.
“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.”
Preserving the story
Yellin insisted this history must be preserved. The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage (www.theperfect36.com), which she co-authored with Dr. Janann Sherman, contains information that no other book on suffrage has since Yellin had interviewed Joe Hanover and Harry Burn in the ‘70s. Burn died in 1977 and Hanover died in 1984.
The National Votes for Women Trail (www.nvwt.org) has markers across the country telling remarkable suffrage stories. These markers were funded by the Pomeroy Foundation (www.wgpfoundation.org). They serve as a reminder that ordinary people did extraordinary things because they believed in democracy and the rule of law.
When we’re all gone, the markers and monuments will remain to tell the story of this nonviolent revolution. We celebrate all those who believed in democracy and fought for it.
Happy 4th of July to all