One Goal, Different Methods – The Limits of Women’s Political Activism

Infighting among suffragists persisted on the best way to win the right to vote.  Many Southern suffragists felt that it should be by state law and on a state-by-state basis. Many Southern suffragists also embraced the concept of the “educated suffragist” which argued that being educated was an important prerequisite for being allowed to vote which effectively excluded the majority of African American suffragists. Other suffragists either wanted to achieve their goal with an amendment to the U.S. Constitution similar to the Fifteenth Amendment that had given African American men the right to vote or did not agree with the educational prerequisite.

 In 1913 a group of Tennessee women from across the state traveled as a group to Washington to participate in the Congressional Union’s efforts to get Congress to ratify the woman suffrage amendment.  Led by Alice Paul, the plan was to recruit women from every congressional district in the county to come to the city, hold a rally, and meet with their local members of Congress to obtain their support for a women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution.  Martha Ray Turney, the chair of the Tennessee legislative committee, organized the Tennessee delegation. Suffragists from across the state gathered in Bristol to travel to Hyattsville, Maryland where women from across the country gathered before holding the first of many rallies and marches in Washington D.C. When the women returned home, Turney issued a call to all Tennessee suffragists to write letters to their congressional representatives and urge them to pass the federal amendment and send it to state governments for ratification.  This strategy had worked for the WCTU in winning statewide prohibition.

Due to a disagreement over which Tennessee city would host the 1914 NAWSA national convention, the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association split into two competing factions, the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association and the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, Inc., Despite this division, these associations expanded rapidly.  By 1917, there were more than 2,500 women in the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, Inc.  When the two groups reunited in 1918, membership grew even more. Lizzie Crozier French was one of the few women in Tennessee who was able to participate in both NAWSA and the Congressional Union.

Unlike in Memphis and Nashville, two additional suffrage leagues were organized in Knoxville. (Are there any African American Chapters we can mention?)  The Knoxville Political Equality League organized in 1913 and was patterned on a similar organization that had been founded in Chicago to work, not just women’s suffrage but for full political equality. Organized at the end of 1916, the Margaret Brent Equal Suffrage League was led by Mrs. S. Rains Wallace.  The Margaret Brent League publicly endorsed Woodrow Wilson when he ran for re-election in 1916 while most of East Tennessee’s suffragists supported the Republican candidate, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes and eventually took part in picketing the White House while Woodrow Wilson was president. The Margaret Brent League passed a resolution condemning the picketing of the White House and asked the Knoxville newspapers to make distinctions between the city’s woman suffrage associations:

     “Resolved, That the members of the Margaret Brent Equal Suffrage League most heartily condemns the action of that body of women who are picketing the White House and insulting our President:  and

      “Be it further resolved That we call on the papers of our city to differentiate between the noble body of suffragists all over the country who are devoting their time and money to the war and relief work and this small body of erratic women, who by their selfishly disloyal conduct, are retarding the passage of the Federal Amendment.”

(Nashville Banner, 9/17/1917)

In 1916 and 1917, the Congressional Union recruited members in Tennessee and in other Southern states.  In February 1916, the Congressional Union held its national convention in Nashville and two months later held a conference in Knoxville to launch a women’s party movement in East Tennessee.

Maud Younger, a member of the National Women’s Party board, traveled across Tennessee and other Southern states in what became known as “The Dixie Flyer” in 1917.  The purpose of this trip was to rally suffragists in Southern states to make personal calls on every Congressman from the South, hoping that Congressmen would be more receptive to supporting suffrage when they realized the  depth of the support for women’s suffrage in their respective districts.   Younger wanted to explain the pickets and “correct the many erroneous impressions that had been made about the woman’s party. To her surprise, on her first stop in Memphis, no public facility allowed her to speak. When the tour arrived in Jackson, Tennessee Mayor Lawrence Taylor made it clear that the city would not allow “any seditious or treasonable utterances,” and then ordered police protection for the meeting.

Lizzie Crozier French was in charge of local arrangements for the tour’s appearance in Knoxville and requested the city commission give permission for this event to take place in Market Hall on evening Tuesday, November 27.  As the day approached for the Dixie Flyer to arrive in Knoxville, the city commission joined Dallas, Memphis, and Nashville in voting to deny Maud Younger permission to use the Market Hall for her speech by a vote of 4 to 1. Knoxville Mayor John E. McMillan made it clear he was “opposed to letting any women, whom I understand are just out of jail, where they were sent for picketing, come here and lambast the president.  This is no time to find fault with the president or his principles, but rather to support him, and I believe that public opinion will bear me out in this statement.” The petition the commission received in protest of the use of the Market Hall for Maud Younger’s speech was signed by eleven members of the Margaret Brent Suffrage League.

The mayor and the commissioners allowed Lizzie French to make a short talk before the vote on the use of the Market Hall, making it clear that she did not believe the commissioners fully understood the purpose of the meeting which was not to criticize the President or make seditious accusations, but rather support the passage of the federal suffrage amendment by Congress.  Although French was granted permission by Judge George M. Trotter, Sr. to use his courtroom, the suffragists arrived to find ten deputy sheriffs on the Knox County courthouse grounds. Sheriff John L. Callaway refused to allow the suffragists inside the building. The Central Labor Union then responded by sending approximately eighty armed men to protect the suffragists.  Maud Younger’s intended lecture turned into a rally on the courthouse steps. The next day, the Nashville Tennessean reported that “nothing seditious was spoken” and that “nothing derogatory of the President came from their lips.”

Many Tennessee suffragists felt that they had to make a choice between Carrie Chapman Catt’s more moderate plans to win the right to vote and Alice Paul’s younger group that wanted to use more “radical” tactics to draw public attention to the cause and shame elected officials into supporting suffrage. In Tennessee, unlike the other suffrage leaders of the state, French was able to remain on good terms with both groups. The Woman’s Party actively worked to cultivate Tennessee women to support their work. Paul became the chair of NAWSA’s Congressional Union, which had organized the marches in Washington, D.C.  in which Tennessee suffragists joined forces with women from around the country. Some of the Tennessee suffragists, however, viewed Paul’s activities as too radical.  By 1918, due to differing opinions about the methods used by suffragists to influence politicians, the Congressional Union eventually split from NAWSA and became the National Women’s Party (NWP).