Celebrating 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage: The Broken Road to the Ballot Box
“Votes for Women!”
Banners, signs, and sashes captured the battle cry of generations of suffragists who worked diligently to obtain the vote for women. Determined to eschew tradition and debunk ignorant propaganda, trailblazers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott would later be joined by Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and many others to demand equal rights for women––all women––including access to the ballot box. The journey, having started in the summer of 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention, finally reached its destination 72 years later, in 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution granting women the right to vote.
The road to the ballot box, however, was long and chock-full of disappointments. Pompous politicians and religious zealots weaponized their words to belittle and humiliate women in vain attempts to dismantle the cause. Women were jailed, treated for psychological disorders, and force-fed when they chose starvation over defeat. But these attempts to break their spirit only set the embers of suffrage ablaze.
Women doubled down and embarked on a strategy to attain voting rights at the state level with hopes that those victories would garner support for a federal amendment. Campaigns led by the National American Woman Suffrage Association resulted in over half of US states giving women full or limited rights to vote before the 19th amendment was ratified. In Tennessee, women's voting rights were limited. But Tennessee would later hold the deciding vote on whether women obtained the constitutional right to vote.
Racial Tensions Threaten Suffrage
Political unrest wasn't the only threat to universal suffrage for women. Racial tensions pulled at the seams of the movement as black women fought for their place or forged their own space to lend their voices to the fight for suffrage. Burdened by the weight of gender and racial inequality, the suffrage campaign for black women not only sought voting rights but also educated black voters on how to circumvent Jim Crow tactics such as poll taxes and literacy tests used to nullify their rights on election day.
Pioneers such as Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, cofounder of Chicago's Alpha Suffrage Club, organized contingents of black women to participate in the movement despite being uninvited or shunned at many events organized by white suffragists. In fact, at one of the largest protests––the Woman Suffrage Procession, where 8,000 women gathered at Woodrow Wilson's inauguration in 1913––black suffragists, whose petitions to participate were initially rejected, were asked to march in the back. Ida B. Wells-Barnett reportedly refused and marched alongside the white women from her Chicago delegation.
Among other threats were anti-suffragists, particularly upper-class white women who didn't support suffrage, fearing that it would corrupt women’s morals. In 1911, Josephine Dodge, the widow of a prominent capitalist in New York, formed the National Association Opposed to Women Suffrage to publicly oppose any effort to give women the right to vote.
Tennessee Casts the Deciding Vote
But we prevailed. Congress approved the 19th Amendment on June 4, 1919. By the summer of 1920, 35 of the nation's 48 states had voted for ratification. Eight states, six of them Southern, rejected it. Three states refused to participate in the vote at all, leaving two Southern states to decide the fate of women's suffrage and change the course of history. Tennessee, still bearing the scars of the Civil War era that divided loyalties, was one of them.
So suffragists leaned in. Catherine Talty Kenny, one of Nashville's most influential suffrage strategists; J. Frankie Pierce, an advocate for social justice and the only black woman to speak at a Tennessee suffrage convention; and suffragists from across the country fought. But anti-suffrage parties, such as the Tennessee Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage fought, too. The battle was contentious, with neither side willing to give in.
During this battle, Tennessee found itself thrust into the national spotlight. Lawmakers had within their reach the power to cast the deciding vote needed to ratify the 19th Amendment. The only question was, Would they wield it?
One lawmaker found himself in the hot seat. Harry T. Burn, the youngest Tennessee legislator, reluctantly voted against suffrage during a special session. But he changed his vote in the nick of time, clearing the path for ratification and earning Tennessee the last spot on the Perfect 36, a list of states that voted for ratification. Some people say he was influenced by his mother, who urged him to vote for suffrage; or perhaps it was the mothers and the daughters on their knees praying for a miracle. Be it by obedience or divinity or both, the 19th Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920, making the United States the 27th country to give women the right to vote.
A Call to Action
Now, 100 years later this August, we commemorate the outstanding efforts of the women and men who bore the scorn of bigotry and hate to secure voting rights for women, many of whom died before the mission was complete. What better way to show our gratitude than by casting our votes this election season and for seasons to come, ensuring we never lose our seat at that table or our voice at the ballot box.
The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage, by Carol Lynn Yellin and Janann Sherman (Iris Press, 1998).
Jacqueline Hayes, MBA, is chief marketing strategist and principal of Crayons & Marketers, a full-service marketing agency located in Nashville, Tennessee. Jacqueline serves on the National Board of Directors for the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) and is a past president of NAWBO Nashville. She is also a member of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Metropolitan Nashville Chapter. Jacqueline was recently named one of the Women of Influence by the Nashville Business Journal and honored with MBE Magazine's WBEs Who Rock Award. Crayons & Marketers is a certified woman-owned, minority, and disadvantaged business enterprise (WBE, MBE, DBE) and was recently recognized as one of Nashville's Best Content Marketing Agencies. For more information, please visit www.crayonsandmarketers.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JacquiHayesMBA