One hundred years ago, opposition forces faced off in Nashville, Tennessee, over the issue of women's suffrage, with the right to vote for 50% of the nation's population hanging in the balance. Over the next three weeks, we'll review the political and social background preceding that summer and the events that culminated in Tennessee's recognition as the "Perfect 36."
When the Founding Patriots gathered in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress to determine the future of the 13 English colonies and their relationship with Great Britain and King George III, the representatives were not unified in their thoughts or proposed actions. Strong voices charged the English Parliament with the denial of the "rights of English citizens" and urged for separation. Calmer voices advocated a peaceful resolution of the conflict, even though mightily perplexed over the series of legislative acts that were designed to tax the colonists who were without a voice in the halls of Parliament. By July 1776, after a series of prolonged and often confrontational debates and votes, the delegates signed a Declaration of Independence, authored primarily by Virginia's Thomas Jefferson, that advanced the call for separation with the now resounding words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Why mention the Declaration of Independence when discussing the historic fight for women's suffrage? In an examination of James Madison's copious notes from the meetings, it is interesting to note the absence of any discussion about the role of women in the new society. Only in the letters between Boston's John Adams and his wife, Abigail, do we find any mention of the "ladies." Abigail Adams, an ardent student of the Enlightenment philosophers and no stranger to intellectual discussions among Boston's political elite, reminded John to "Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than [his] ancestors."
However, there would be no formal national platform advocating for the rights of women, especially the right to vote, until 72 years later in 1848 when women and some men would gather in Seneca Falls, New York, to advance the idea. Interestingly, it would be another 72 years before women's suffrage would become a reality — based on the vote of the Tennessee General Assembly, following a call into session by Gov. Al Roberts (Overton County).
So how did all the nation's attention come to be focused on Tennessee during that summer, and what role did area residents play in the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution? It is an intriguing story that begins long before 1920 and a vote in Nashville.
On June 4, 1919, the 66th Congress of the United States reached the two-thirds majority necessary for the passage of the 19th Amendment. Victory was celebrated across the nation by the supporters of women's suffrage; after all, 21 consecutive previous Congresses had rejected the idea of federal women's suffrage. Victory was near — if
According to constitutional guidelines about the amendment process, two-thirds of the states had to ratify the amendment. With 48 states in the union, 36 state legislatures would need to meet and vote for the ratification. Given that the state legislatures were comprised of all-male senators and representatives, the road to ratification began with an uncertain outcome.
The first six ratifications came in only eight days: Kansas, Ohio, New York, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Within seven weeks, another seven states had voted favorably and, by New Year's Day, 1920, the total had reached 22 states. The battles had been intense as the pro-suffrage workers and the anti-suffrage campaigners had engaged in heated battles in the press and on the public podium. '
By late February 1920, another 10 states had joined the "yes" column, the result of a well-orchestrated national push to commemorate the 100th birthday of early suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony, born on Feb. 15, 1820. The new total, 32 states, was only four states short of the necessary 36. Oklahoma, West Virginia and Washington had moved into the ratification column by spring, but all hung in the balance as political experts surveyed the states yet to vote. Who would provide the crucial vote and become the "Perfect 36?"
The story continues next week.
Linda Moss Mines is the Chattanooga-Hamilton County historian, co-chairman of the Hamilton County Yellow Rose Commemoration Committee and regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.