It was August 18, 1920 and America had only secured 35 states that were FOR ratifying the 19th Amendment. Tennessee was the last state that was going to vote and it wasn’t looking good. They called it the “War of the Roses” with pro ratifiers, aka “suffs” donning yellow roses and the antis donning red ones. The suffs were short one vote when a 24 year old representative, Harry T. Burn, with a red rose pinned to his lapel and a letter from his mother in his pocket, voted “aye” in favor of the amendment. His mother, Febb Burn, had sent him a letter stating “Dear Son, … Hurrah and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt. With lots of love, Mama.”
Years later he wrote, “I had always believed that women had an inherent right to vote. It was a logical attitude from my standpoint. My mother was a college woman, a student of national and international affairs who took an interest in all public issues. She could not vote. Yet the tenant farmers on our farm, some of whom were illiterate, could vote. On that roll call, confronted with the fact that I was going to go on record for time and eternity on the merits of the question, I had to vote for ratification.”
The Nineteenth Amendment guarantees all American women the right to vote, this included African American women (but unfortunately that part of the fight continued until Jim Crow laws were abolished). The 19th amendment reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The amendment was first introduced to Congress in 1878 but it was not ratified until 1920. Tennessee became the “Perfect 36” on Aug 18, 1920 when it became the last state needed to ratify the amendment.
To celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, we’re going to look at some of the early Memphians that helped push for suffrage in America. Their hard work and determination helped further the cause and change the future for all women.
The first on our list are two sisters…
Elizabeth Avery Meriwether and her sister in law Lide Smith Meriwether shared a home with their husbands, on Peabody Avenue. The sisters spent their time working together in the fight for women’s rights.
Elizabeth and her husband, Minor, were quite progressive for their time. Upon their marriage, they signed a contract agreeing to share and invest equally. Elizabeth was one of the South’s first suffragettes and one of the first to publicly push for suffrage. She used her own money, that she received from maintaining properties, to start her own small newspaper, The Tablet, which promoted votes for women in every issue. This paper also voiced its support for equal pay for the sexes and advocated for Ms. Clara Conway to be elected to the school board.
Elizabeth once rented out the The Memphis Theatre, the largest in town, to deliver a public speech on women’s rights. Over 500 women attended and the Memphis Appeal wrote an article on how she “was a worthy advocate of her sex and that she was met with frequent bursts of applause”.
In 1872, after hearing that Susan B. Anthony was arrested after attempting to vote, Elizabeth said that she was going to vote in the next Memphis election and if she was arrested, she would gladly share a cell with Miss Anthony. In the next election, she did just that, except she was not arrested. She felt that was due to her status in the community, while some believed her friends were the ones to accept the ballot, but then they threw it away.
During the 1880s, she began to travel with Susan B. Anthony across the country to advocate for women’s voting. In 1883, Elizabeth, her husband, and children moved to St. Louis to escape the Yellow Fever Epidemic, but still continued her campaigning for women’s rights.
While her sister in law was away, Lide took over the leadership reins in Memphis. Lide also enjoyed putting pen to paper. She was the editor of a literary journal for “genteel women”. The Soundings was dedicated to the “fallen woman” and spoke of the inequalities between men and women. In a time when women found it hard to support themselves, they had to turn to things such as sex work to make money to survive. In an effort to help, she would take sex workers home and train them for other occupations. Also in her writings, she would point fingers at those “respectable women” who did not help the less fortunate. Lide helped found the Ella Oliver Refuge, a woman’s shelter in Memphis.
In 1886, the National Woman Suffrage Association hired Lide to lecture and organize Equal Rights clubs in TN. She helped influence the editor of the Memphis Appeal to publish its first pro suffrage editorial on July 29, 1888. It stated that “intelligent people realize the injustice of withholding the ballot from women”.
May 21, 1889, Lide was elected president of the newly formed Woman Suffrage League in Memphis. She eventually became honorary president for life of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association.
In her advocacy, she argued against the classification of women with minors, aliens, paupers, criminals, and idiots and advocated legal reform that would give women title to their own clothing and earnings, guardianship of their children, and the right to vote.
(so granted some of those titles are outdated, but let’s be clear, as far as political rights are concerned, women were on the same level as criminals…)
She joined women from several states in Washington in 1892 to testify before the House of Representatives committee hearing on women suffrage. Apparently her remarks were the only ones that committee members seemed to give attention to.
Lide loved a good petition and she wrote them often. This one in particular was published with over 500 signatures.
The petition read as follows:
“We, the undersigned women of Tennessee, do and should want the ballot because—
1. Being 21 years old, we object to being classified with minors.
2. Born in America and loyal to her institutions, we protest against being made perpetual aliens.
3. Costing the treasuries of our counties nothing, we protest against acknowledging the male pauper as our superior.
4. Being obedient to law, we protest against the statute which classes us with the convict and makes the pardoned criminal our political superior.
5. Being sane, we object to being classified with the lunatic.
6. Possessing an average amount of intelligence, we protest against legal classification with the idiot.
7. We taxpayers claim the right to representation.
8. We married women want to own our clothes.
9. We married breadwinners want to own our earnings.
10. We mothers want an equal partnership with our children.
11. We educated women want the power to offset the illiterate vote of our State.”
Lide passed away in 1913 and Elizabeth in 1917. Although they didn’t get to see the outcome of their visions come pass, they created the strong foundation for those that came after them.
Next we have Mary Church Terrell.
Mary was the first born daughter of Robert Church, a biracial man born to a slave mother and a white plantation owner. Church became a businessman, and eventually the South’s first African American millionaire, after slavery was abolished.
He was intent on his daughter having a quality education, so he sent her to one of the first colleges to admit women, Oberlin College in Ohio. From the start, she was thriving and her first essay was on why the constitution should have a 16th amendment granting suffrage to women. Mary later stated, “I cannot recall a time since I first heard the subject discussed, that I did not believe in the woman suffrage with all my heart”.
After graduating college, she went on to teach at a university and then a high school, where she eventually met her husband, who was working and in school studying to become a lawyer. Her husband had supported her and believed wholeheartedly in women’s suffrage.
By the 1890s, Mary had founded the Colored Womans League, was appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Educators (the first black woman to hold the position), and was the founding president of the National Association of Colored Women. This association argued that voting rights for black women were inseparable from questions of black men’s disenfranchisement and the broader freedom struggle. This club, as well as other African American women’s clubs, had their own brand of suffrage that prioritized racial justice. Terrell argued that the vote was even more essential to African American women because they were disadvantaged by both their race and their sex, and the vote would be key to achieving civil rights.
At a convention in 1890, she spoke saying “As a colored woman, I hope this Association will include a resolution on the injustices of various kinds of which colored people are the victims…My sisters of the dominant race, stand up not only for the oppressed sex but also for the oppressed race!”
She continued to lecture and pin essays on behalf of suffrage. By 1909, she was one of two women becoming charter members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She was also active in the National American Woman Suffrage Association, working closely with Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt. She spoke at the International Congress of Women in Berlin and was the only African American invited to speak, which she did in German and French, as well as English. She even joined suffragists of the National Woman’s Party in picketing the White House.
This will not be the last you hear about Mrs. Terrell. She, like Wells Barnett, was a hometown pioneer for social justice. The Church family will have a few episodes dedicated to their legacy.
If you recall from the episode on Ida B. Wells, you’ll remember she was also a pioneer for suffrage, especially for the African American population. If you’ve not listened to that episode, please do, you can hear not only about her social justice fight, but also what she did for the suffrage movement. She was an amazing woman, who I believe, maybe next year, is getting a statue on Beale and Fourth, near where her newspaper office was located.
Up next is Elizabeth Lyle Saxon.
Mrs. Saxon believed the key to a woman’s future was the ability to vote and have economic opportunities. She was raised by her father because her mother passed away when Elizabeth was just two years old. Her father instilled in her independence and the hatred of oppression.
On his deathbed, his last wish was for Elizabeth to never cease working for unfortunate women, so long as her life should last.
Like many of the other ladies, Saxon traveled with Susan B. Anthony, speaking passionately and poetically at conventions all over the country. She founded and served as state president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association and vice president of the Women’s National Suffrage Association. Saxon split her time between Memphis and New Orleans. She spoke before the Louisiana Constitutional Convention where there was a motion to give women equal voting rights. Her speech was so moving, it was featured in an issue of the New Orleans Times. She earned a national reputation for being a powerful speaker.
Saxon’s entire adult life was dedicated to the advancement of women and girls. She passed away 5 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified but she was cited as being “instrumental to the social changes leading up to the amendments passing”.
Memphis can proudly boast having the first woman to actively practice law in Tennessee, even before women were allowed to vote. Marion Scudder Griffin was denied the right several times because of her sex, but eventually she prevailed in 1907.She was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly in 1922. She headed the Social Welfare Committee and sponsored legislation benefiting the lives of women and children. She was an active member of the Memphis League of Women Voters. Griffin never stopped advocating for the advancement of women in the legal sector.
Luckily, in Memphis, the suffrage movement had support from the men in government. One such influential men was Joe Hanover, a young lawyer from Memphis. He left his law position and headed to the House of Representatives in an effort to pass women’s suffrage. Even as a young child, studying the US Constitution he questioned, “why can’t mother vote?’. Hanover, who was also a Jewish immigrant, was extremely patriotic and “expressed his love for his country and his treasured belief that the right to vote should be afforded to all citizens. He once said, “A mother brings a child into this world but has no say afterward about the future of that child, his education or rearing.” Everything he did as a legislator was to bring social equality. Although billed as an Independent, he used his legal knowledge to help properly write bills when the Democrats and Republicans wanted to get them passed. Hanover was kind and intelligent and that won the respect of those with whom he worked. He became the 19th Amendment’s floor leader in the House. He fought hard to convince the other legislators to support the suffrage cause and when he succeeded, he retired from the House and came back to Memphis founding an influential law firm, never running for office again.
There were several organizations that came from the Suffrage Movement in the US. The National Woman Suffrage Association was founded in 1869 by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. It is said that the group opposed the 15th Amendment, but really they want to also include the right for women to vote, along with the right for African American men to vote. Stanton stated that by enfranchising almost all men while excluding all women, the amendment would give constitutional authority to the idea that men were superior to women, creating an ‘aristocracy of sex’”.
It also supported other women’s rights such as better education and the ability to file for divorce.
The American Woman Suffrage Association was also founded that year, but only focused on the voting aspect of the cause. This became the more popular of groups because they had a more moderate agenda.
The two groups merged in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Unfortunately, even though there was progress being made, there was also still racism within the ranks. In 1896, this led to a group being formed called the National Association of Colored Women. This group advocated not only for the right for black women to vote, but also for other social reforms. They pushed to end Jim Crow law like segregation, and for children to have better schools and education. Their motto was to “lifting as we climb”, meaning that they wanted to uplift and improve the status of African Americans.
In 1904, the Equal Suffrage Association was founded in Memphis, but failed due to lack of funds. Just two years later, the Equal Suffrage League was formed and the members worked to organize the suffrage movement in Memphis as well as throughout Tennessee. The organization held parades, rallies, pink teas, and rummage sales. Their efforts helped push the legislature to gradually allow women to have some rights. Women could control property after marriage and vote in some elections, the presidential election but not the governor, state legislator, or congress elections.
One of the organizations who had a hand in the suffrage cause was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. I didn’t want to leave it out, but I also didn’t want to focus a lot of time on it. Many of the suffragettes belonged to this organization, however, WCTU focused on securing women’s participation in the political process as the protectors of the home, rather than the suffragists’ more radical idea of gender equality, which helped legitimize the movement. By the late 1890s, the group began to distance itself from more feminist groups, once again began focusing mainly on prohibition. So, I wanted to throw it out there that it existed, but it had other motives besides voting rights.
The newest suffrage monument to grace the state of Tennessee is to be the Memphis Suffrage Monument, debuting, hopefully, in December of 2020. According to the TN Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail, the monument will be located behind the University of Memphis Law School, facing the Mississippi River. The monument will feature 14 steel panels of women marching over 100 years which will face the law school. Facing the river will be 14 glass and steel panels, six bronze busts on steel pedestals and LED lighting.
The following individuals will be featured on the monument with busts as well as glass panels:
Ida B. Wells: Journalist, anti-lynching campaigner, later suffragist (don’t forget to listen to our episode on Mrs. Wells-Barnett if you have not)
Mary Church Terrell: Suffragist, champion of racial and gender equality
Marion Griffin: First woman to practice law in TN, the first woman elected to state House
Rep. Joe Hanover: House floor leader who kept pro-suffrage votes together, an ally of Carrie Chapman Catt, attorney, humanitarian
Charl Ormond Williams: A nationally known educator who coordinated state ratification efforts, stood by Gov. Roberts when he signed ratification papers
Rep. Lois DeBerry: First female Speaker Pro Tempore in Tennessee legislature, 40 years of public service
Other etched faces and narratives in glass:
Lide Smith Meriwether: Early suffragist who had national recognition
Lulu Colyar Reese: Later suffragist, in Nashville in 1920
Alma H. Law: First woman to serve on Shelby County Quarterly Court, served until her death in 1947
Maxine Smith: Civil rights legend, NAACP Executive Director, registered large numbers of women to vote
Minerva Johnican: First black female on County Commission and City Council, ran for city mayor in 1987, was nationally recognized Criminal Court Clerk
Frances Grant Loring: Women’s rights and civil rights activist, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a founding member of the Association for Women Attorneys, Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association
Happy Snowden Jones: Founding member of Panel of American Women, helped avert 2nd sanitation workers strike, the first donor to this monument, a feminist philanthropist who was the benefactor of The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage book, e-book, and audiobook
And with that, we’ll leave you with a quote from Paula Casey, co-Founder of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail.
“All the members of the Shelby County legislative delegation supported suffrage, which was huge. The rest of the state was divided. Memphis is the reason the vote passed in Nashville. We need to claim that. It’s important for people to know that.”
Yellin, Carol Lynn, Janann Sherman, Ilene J. Cornwell, Don Sundquist, and Martha Sundquist. The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage. Memphis, Tennesee: Vote 70 Press, 2016.
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