Section 13: The Final Stretch of the March

In September 1918, President Woodrow Wilson, pressured by the suffragists and concerned about foreign propaganda, finally endorsed woman suffrage. On April 14, 1919, the Tennessee General Assembly passed partial woman suffrage, permitting Tennessee women the right to vote in municipal and presidential elections (not state). Two months later, on June 4, 1919, the US Congress passed the 19th Amendment, known as the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment,” granting the women the right to vote at all levels of government.

In order for the amendment to become part of the US Constitution, three-fourths of the states needed to vote in favor of ratification. The suffragists immediately turned to convincing 36 state legislatures, composed almost entirely of white men, to grant women the legal right to vote. During that year African American suffrage clubs in Tennessee helped to get 2,500 Black women to the polls in cities where they were eligible to vote. Catherine Kenny, the chair of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, was awed with Juno Frankie Pierce’s organizational skills and invited her to address the first convention of the Tennessee League of Women Voters in the state capitol’s lower chamber in May 1920. “What will the Negro women do with the vote?” asked Pierce, a daughter of a free Black man and an enslaved woman. She answered her rhetorical question: “We will stand by the white women. … We are asking only one thing—a square deal. … We want recognition in all forms of this government. We want a state vocational school and a child welfare department of the state, and more room in state schools.”

By spring 1920, 35 states had voted in favor of the 19th Amendment. Seven states had rejected it, mainly in the South, where the “race issue” had dissuaded support for woman suffrage. Yet, it would be Tennessee, a Southern state, where the long “march for victory” would come to a head.

After Governor Albert H. Roberts received a personal telegram from President Wilson, Roberts convened the Tennessee state legislature for a special session. In August 1920, the eyes of the nation were on Tennessee, and suffrage supporters and opponents flooded into Nashville to sway the vote in their favor. Both factions wore roses—red for “antis” and yellow for “pros”—to show their stance on the amendment. The Hermitage Hotel, which served as headquarters for both sides, was a sea of red and yellow, as lobbyists worked to influence state politicians. Carrie Chapman Catt, the leader of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, was present, while Alice Paul sent Sue Shelton White from West Tennessee to represent the National Woman’s Party. Once voting began, it did not take long for the Tennessee Senate to approve the amendment.

As Tennessee became the battleground for woman suffrage, newspapers across the country covered the events taking place in Nashville. Political cartoons often used  “Colonel Tennessee,” a chivalrous but old-fashioned character, to represent the state and its old-South ways.

The Tennessee House of Representatives, however, favored a motion that would delay or even halt the amendment if passed. Speaker of the House Seth Walker, originally thought to be a supporter of woman suffrage, changed his position and announced his opposition. Playing to supporters of the “race issue,” the Wilson County representative exclaimed, “This is a white man’s country!” and further proclaimed that, if women won the vote, Southern Black citizens would also demand expanded suffrage. The representatives were closely split, and it was only the tying vote of Banks Turner from Gibson County that prevented the amendment from being cast aside.

Tennessee Woman Suffrage Trivia:

The “suffrage showdown” that occurred in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1920 is often referred to as–the War of the Roses, the War of the Worlds, the War of the Women, or the War of the Votes?

Answer: The Ware of the Roses