Beginnings of the East Tennessee’s Suffrage Movement

As women’s suffrage was nationally spotlighted at the beginning of the twentieth century, not all Tennessee women wholeheartedly embraced it. Although Memphis organized the state’s first local suffrage league in 1889, other towns were slow to follow. But there had been major developments for the movement. After years of negotiations, the AWSA and NWSA joined together in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In East Tennessee, Maryville women established the state’s second suffrage league in 1893, and by 1897, it had twenty-five members. Led by Mary Tomlinson Wilson McTeer, who had been one of the first women to earn a bachelor’s degree in Tennessee, the Maryville League was quite active. On Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s birthday in 1896, they held a public event and invited women from Maryville College as well as members of other local women’s groups to attend. It was reported to NAWSA that almost 100 guests were present.

Though Tennessee suffragists organized the Tennessee Equal Rights Association in 1897, the organization was unable to sustain its initial momentum after only two meetings. It was not until 1906 that a permanent state organization was finally formed and the only suffrage league in the state was in Memphis.

When the TERA board realized that the local and state suffrage associations needed to be separate to achieve local aims, other local leagues were organized. Once again, Lizzie Crozier French called a meeting in her Knoxville home in January 1910, this time to organize the Knoxville Equal Suffrage League with herself as its president. To the dismay of the Memphis suffragists, however, the Knoxville League declined to join the state association due in part to regional rivalries. The next year, Morristown, Chattanooga, and Nashville women followed Knoxville’s lead. Sara Barnwell Elliott became the state organization’s president in 1912. That year she prepared and distributed to elected state and local government officials a petition in which she listed the reasons that Tennessee women needed the right to vote.