Mines: The path toward women's suffrage

Abby Crawford Milton / Contributed photo

Last week we paused, stalled on the path to women's suffrage with 35 states having voted for the proposed 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A positive vote for ratification by 36 states, three-fourths of the total 48 states, was required before women's suffrage would become the law of the land. Which state would become the "Perfect 36" and claim its place in history?

Of the remaining 13 states, six states (Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland) had already voted "no." Three of the remaining seven states seemed distant possibilities to support the amendment. Members of the legislatures of each (Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina) had spoken publicly, not against the concept of women voting, but voicing their distrust of the enforcement power that would be granted to the U.S. Congress for oversight of federal elections. Speeches had included references to the previous "strong-arm tactics" used for the enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments. Interestingly, two of the New England states, Vermont and Connecticut, also had taken a strong stance against women's suffrage. With five of the seven remaining states crossed off the "yes" column, where were the proponents of suffrage to find their final support? Would it be Delaware or Tennessee?

While the governor of Delaware announced his strong support for the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the political process bogged down quickly. Gov. John Townsend watched as his Republican majority in both houses split, not over the issue of women's suffrage, but over the governor's own attempted domination of the party. Delaware's vote, which had looked promising, suddenly began to crumble amidst the party infighting.

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Adding to the uncertainty, Ohio leaders questioned whether its legislature should have so quickly made its early pro decision. Should they instead submit the vote to Ohio's citizens with the possibility of a recall of their previous vote? Prominent attorneys and federal judges from across the nation began writing opinions, arguing the constitutionality of a recall which was not specifically allowed in the U.S. Constitution. The old issue of strict construction versus loose construction, reminiscent of the debates between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, filled the newspapers. The anti-suffrage leaders in Ohio filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court; the same debate found traction in Massachusetts, Nebraska and two other states. The very future of the 19th Amendment, so close to ratification, suddenly seemed to be sinking in the quicksand of politics.

In early June 1920, Delaware's legislature voted "no," but at almost the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the previous votes of those states attempting to change their process to a public vote would stand. Once again, 35 states appeared in the "yes" column. Twelve states were assumed to be firmly in the "no" column, although not all state legislatures had voted.

Tennessee stood alone as a presumed "undecided," and the nation's most prominent news writers and photographers began traveling to the Volunteer State.

So, what might happen in Tennessee's General Assembly? The session had already adjourned, and legislators had returned home. Tennessee's Gov. Albert H. Roberts had not voiced his personal opinion. Roberts, a former teacher and practicing attorney, was far more interested in tax reform than women's suffrage, although he had earlier signed off on legislation granting Tennessee women partial suffrage in presidential and municipal elections. In fact, Tennessee was the first of the former Confederate states to move toward equality in voting rights. However, for Gov. Roberts, convening a special session of the legislature raised a constitutional question since Tennessee's Constitution required federal amendments to be acted upon "only by a legislature that shall have been elected after such amendment is submitted." Did that clause mean that Tennessee could not vote until after the 1920 elections?

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Into the void created by the indecision marched Tennessee's suffrage leaders. Anne Dallas Dudley of Nashville and Abby Crawford Milton of Chattanooga traveled to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco as delegates, advocating for suffrage. Catherine Talty Kenny of Nashville, who organized the Yellow Rose Ratification Headquarters, decided to telegraph President Woodrow Wilson and simultaneously appealed to the U.S. assistant attorney general, John L. Frierson, a former mayor of Chattanooga. Frierson rendered his decision the same day, announcing that Gov. Roberts could constitutionally call a special session for a vote on the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Next week we'll join the governor as he makes a historic decision.

Linda Moss Mines, the Chattanooga and Hamilton County historian, is a member of the Tennessee Woman 100 Committee and regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.