Section 11: One Goal, Different Methods

Southern suffragists disagreed on the best way to win the right to vote, and infighting persisted. Many felt that women’s right to vote should be decided on a state-by-state basis. Some embraced the concept of the “educated suffragist,” which argued that formal education was a prerequisite for being allowed to vote; this concept effectively excluded the majority of Black suffragists. Others either favored an amendment to the US Constitution (similar to the 15th Amendment that had given Black men the right to vote) or did not agree with an educational prerequisite.

In 1913, a group of Tennessee women traveled to Washington, DC, to participate in the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU), a committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) charged with lobbying for an amendment to the US Constitution. The CU’s plan, led by Alice Stokes Paul (1885-1977), was to invite women from every congressional district in the country to come to the US Capitol, hold a rally, and meet with their congressional representatives to obtain support for a woman suffrage amendment. Martha Ray Turney, the chair of the Tennessee legislative committee, recruited the Volunteer State’s delegation, which gathered in Bristol before traveling to Hyattsville, Maryland, to organize. When the women returned home, Turney issued a call to all Tennessee suffragists to write letters to their congressional representatives, urging them to pass the federal amendment and send it to state governments for ratification. Recall this strategy worked for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in winning statewide Prohibition, but it did not immediately pay dividends for Tennessee suffragists.

Later in the year, the CU parted ways with NAWSA, but it continued to recruit members throughout Southern states, including in Nashville, Tennessee, where it held its national convention in 1916. Two months later, the CU held a conference in Knoxville to launch the National Woman’s Party (NWP), the organization’s new banner, in East Tennessee.

Even the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association (TESA) split into two competing factions– TESA and TESA, Inc.–due to a disagreement over which Tennessee city would host the 1914 NAWSA national convention. Despite this division, the associations expanded rapidly; by 1917, TESA, Inc. had grown to include more than 2,500 members. When the two groups reunited in 1918, membership grew even more.

A new generation of suffragists had emerged. Some, like Paul and Lucy Burns (1879-1966), utilized more aggressive tactics modeled after suffragettes in England. Under the banner of the NWP, these militant, although non-violent, suffragists turned to picketing and civil disobedience. 

The “Silent Sentinels” were the NWP’s most visible campaigners. They began picketing the White House in January 1917 in response to President Woodrow Wilson’s anti-suffrage stance. This tactic proved controversial, however, when the United States entered World War I; while many suffragists shifted their focus to the war effort, the NWP continued to picket, causing many Americans, including the National American Woman Suffrage Association, to label the sentinels as “seditious” and “Anti-American.” 

More than 150 suffragists were arrested for “obstructing the sidewalk” in front of the White House. Many of these women served time in Virginia’s Occoquan Work House, where they were subjected to poor living conditions and brutal treatment. 

While the United States was fighting to “make the world safe for democracy,” the reality was that half of its population could not participate in the democratic process.

Unlike in Memphis and Nashville, additional suffrage leagues were organized in Knoxville. The Knoxville Political Equality League was organized in 1913 and was patterned on a similar Chicago, Illinois, organization that fought for full political equality, not just woman suffrage. Organized at the end of 1916, the local chapter of the Margaret Brent Equal Suffrage League (MBESL) was led by Margaret Catherine Wallace. The MBESL endorsed NAWSA and publicly backed President Wilson for re-election in 1916, whereas other East Tennessee’s suffragists supported the Republican candidate, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, and took part in the emerging NWP, whose tactics included picketing of the Democratic White House. As reported in the September 17, 1917, Nashville Banner, the MBESL passed a resolution condemning the “body of women picketing the White House and insulting our President” and further resolved to “call on the papers of our city (Knoxville) 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.”

Tennessee Woman Suffrage Trivia:

Which national suffrage organization did most Tennessee suffragists support–the National Organization for Women, the National Woman’s Party, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, or the National Suffrage Association?

Answer: The National American Woman Suffrage Association