As we continue to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote, it is important to honor the many women in our community who were active in the suffrage movement.
Two women were responsible for the first efforts in Chattanooga. Catherine Wester and Margret Ervin of Chattanooga were cousins whose names, according to James Livingood in his "History of Hamilton County," became synonymous with the local movement.
In 1911, they attended a national suffrage convention and emerged as activists. Later that year, they held the first local meeting of what became the Chattanooga Equal Rights Association. Eventually the organization boasted more than 200 members, over one-third of whom were men, but progress was slow.
Wester and Ervin continued to advocate for women's rights on the local, state and national level. They marched in suffrage parades in Washington, D.C. Wester represented Tennessee on a national suffrage council. Ervin testified before a congressional committee on equal rights for women.
In 1915, Tennessee cracked the door for women when the state legislature made them eligible for the office of notary public.
The Congress passed legislation permitting states to decide for themselves whether to enfranchise women at the state and local levels. Several states had already done so when the Tennessee legislature passed the Municipal Enfranchisement Act.
Former Sen. Newell Sanders and his wife, Corrine, lobbied the town council of Lookout Mountain to allow women to vote in municipal elections and hold positions on the school board. Thus, Corrine Sanders became the first woman to cast a ballot in Tennessee in April 1918. Her daughter, Norrine, won a seat on the Lookout Mountain School Board in the same election.
Corrine Sanders was a member of the first co-educational class at the University of Indiana. Relocating to Chattanooga with her husband in 1883, Corrine devoted herself to rearing their five children, while becoming active in civic affairs and church work. She founded the Lookout Mountain Garden Club and was active in a number of other organizations. She was the founder of free kindergartens and personally raised funds to support them.
Although less well known than the more glamorous Abby Milton, wife of the Chattanooga News owner George Milton, Corrine was a national leader in the League of Women Voters. When her husband was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1912, Corrine maintained a desk in his office and was involved in legislative affairs.
Having worked toward passage of statewide prohibition, the couple was instrumental in the passage of prohibition in Tennessee in 1909. Prohibition and suffrage for women were closely linked as women's rights advocates also worked to improve the lives of women and children. The push for prohibition led members of the liquor and beer industry to oppose suffrage on the grounds that if women gained the right to vote, national prohibition would follow. Actually the National Prohibition Act, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, was ratified in 1919, before the suffrage amendment.
The work of women on behalf of the war effort during World War I not only empowered women, who left their homes to work in factories and shops in order to free men for military service, but also gave impetus to the suffrage movement.
As the deadline for the ratification of the 19th Amendment neared, Tennessee was the final battleground.
In Chattanooga, competing newspapers held opposite points of view. The Times opposed suffrage, while George Milton's News supported suffrage. Abby Milton was the first president of the Tennessee League of Women Voters.
When Harry Burn voted for passage of the 19th Amendment, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify, and women's enfranchisement became part of the U.S. Constitution. Reportedly, Burn voted for the amendment at the urging of his mother, Febb, and lobbying by Newell Sanders.
More than 100 years since the passage of the women's suffrage, women made slow progress in political life. Sadie Watson was elected as county registrar in 1922, the first woman to hold elective office in Hamilton County, but Chattanooga has yet to elect a female mayor. In 1926, Sarah Frazier became the third woman to win election to the state legislature, but Tennessee is yet to elect a female governor. The Volunteer State is currently represented by the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Tennessee, Marsha Blackburn.
Catherine, Margaret, Febb, Corrine, Norinne, Abby, Sadie and Sarah would likely be disappointed.
Gay Moore is an author and retired Chattanooga State faculty member. For more information, visit Chattahistorical.org.