This summer, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and American women’s constitutional right to vote, it’s important to realize how difficult and fraught the final battle was, how complex the issues, how bitter the fight, how truly uncertain the outcome. Even at the dawn of the second decade of the 20th century, the idea of women casting a ballot was still controversial and contested; today women make up the majority of U.S. voters.
The election is in 94 days. Will the results be seen as legitimate?
We tend to envision the American woman suffrage movement as a triumphant newsreel of women in white dresses and fabulous hats marching to victory, as enlightened men suddenly and nobly hand the ballot to female citizens – all female citizens. That newsreel is romantic fiction.
The truth is grittier, and more important: It required three generations of fearless activists over a span of more than seven decades working in more than 900 state, local, and national campaigns to finally win the vote for American women. And that active verb – win – is important: Women were not given the vote; they were not granted the vote. As one commentator so aptly describes it: “They took it.”
And when the 19th Amendment was subsequently subverted by racist Jim Crow laws in Southern states, denying the promise of the ballot to Black women, and by racist laws in Western states, robbing Native American and Asian women – and men – of the vote, the fight for voting rights would continue for decades longer. It wasn’t quick, and it was never easy.
The fight for woman suffrage is one of the defining civil rights struggles in our nation’s history – one that cuts to the heart of what democracy means: Who gets to participate in government? Who has a voice? When we say “We the People” do we really mean everyone? Of course, we are asking those same questions today, as voting rights, citizenship rights, and women’s rights are still burning issues.
Those same flickering newsreel images also give the impression that the final confrontations over women’s voting rights took place in a simpler time of Model T’s and exquisite haberdashery, all polite and decorous, far from today’s raw political and cultural smackdowns. Actually, the decisive struggle over the 19th Amendment in Nashville played out during a charged moment in U.S. history, in circumstances that may seem eerily familiar to us right now.
A century ago, the nation was on edge, and Americans entered the summer of 1920 in an anxious mood. The economy was slipping from recession into depression. The global pandemic of influenza was subsiding, but had already claimed 600,000 American lives. Racial unrest was roiling cities across the country, and the Ku Klux Klan was in resurgence. Labor strikes for better wages and conditions were being met with violent reprisals. Immigration was a contentious issue, and the public, wary of international entanglements, signaled a desire for a more isolationist foreign policy. A nasty presidential election campaign was underway, featuring the Republican candidate’s divisive slogan: America First.
Into this volatile moment came three women, rushing to Nashville.
Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the preeminent suffrage organization in the nation, was traveling from NAWSA headquarters in New York City to direct the ratification campaign. Catt – a master strategist, brilliant orator, and protégé of Susan B. Anthony – knew this could shape up to be the ultimate battle for her cause, and she would face her greatest challenge.
Sue Shelton White, chairwoman of the Tennessee chapter of the National Woman’s Party, the more radical wing of the suffrage movement, arrived fresh from the NWP’s latest picketing demonstration. A lieutenant to NWP founder Alice Paul, White emerged from the third generation of suffragists, the younger women who’d lost patience with the slow progress of the movement. They were tired of asking politely for their rights and were willing to be confrontational, disruptive – even go to prison – for The Cause. White was dispatched to Nashville to manage the NWP’s own campaign to convince the legislature to ratify, working toward the same goal of, but not in concert with, Catt’s NAWSA suffragists.
Rounding out the trio was Josephine Pearson, president of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. A college teacher and dean, Pearson came to Nashville to defend her home state against the “feminist peril” and the “scourge of suffrage” that the 19th Amendment threatened to unleash. She and her sister “antis” swore to maintain their feminine dignity, but fight viciously, to protect Southern women from the dirty world of politics, and especially make certain that Black women would not be allowed the right to vote.
The suffragists understood that Tennessee was a terrible place for a definitive confrontation over the 19th Amendment. Almost all the other states of the former Confederacy had already rejected the amendment, and more were poised to do so, all using the same rationales of opposition. (Even Southern border states like Maryland and Delaware had refused to ratify.) The 19th Amendment promised the vote to all eligible female citizens, including Black women, and these states balked at the federal government “meddling” in state affairs, mandating who should be allowed to vote.
Those same states’ rights arguments had been employed during the ratification fights over the 14th Amendment (granting African Americans citizenship and equal rights) and the 15th Amendment (granting African American men the right to vote) in the 1860s, and would be used again in the 1960s civil rights conflicts; we still hear them articulated today.
But the suffragists had little choice: Tennessee was their last best hope to get the 36th state to ratify before the pivotal fall presidential election, when the policy direction of the nation would be determined for the foreseeable future; women wanted to have a voice in those decisions. They’d proved their patriotism and citizenship during the recent Great War by voluntarily taking on roles never before asked of American women: They’d worked in mines and munition factories, as streetcar conductors, truck drivers, and pilots, as farmerettes and lumberjills, as well as doctors and nurses overseas.
It had recently become harder for American men, especially legislators, to argue that women were the weaker sex, were too emotionally unstable and intellectually limited, did not “deserve” or want the vote. By the end of the war, the women of 15 states, mostly in the West, but also in Illinois and New York, already enjoyed the right to vote, thanks to the suffragists’ relentless campaigns to change state enfranchisement laws. But for the women in all the other states, a federal amendment was their only hope for achieving full suffrage.
Twenty-six nations had already extended voting rights to women, including Great Britain and, more embarrassingly, Russia and the recently defeated enemy, Germany. Suffragists cleverly used this to appeal to not only Congress’ sense of justice, but also sense of guilt, and even wounded national pride. If America had just fought a war “to make the world safe for democracy,” how could it deny half of its citizens a voice in that democracy?
Only after the war, in June 1919, did Congress finally pass the woman suffrage amendment, after 40 years of stalling – a biblical span of debate, deceit, and delay. The amendment had been introduced in 1878, but was voted down, in committee or on the floor of the House or Senate, 28 times.
When the Senate finally passed the amendment by a margin of only two votes, it went to the states for ratification in an off year for many state legislatures – when they were not in regular session – making the process far more difficult. Suffragists had to convince 30 governors to call their legislatures back into special session to act on the amendment, and many balked at the cost, both financial and political.
The governor of Tennessee was among these reluctant politicians; he was running for reelection in a tight primary and didn’t want his campaign complicated by a woman suffrage showdown. It would require a U.S. Supreme Court decision, arm twisting by the White House, and strenuous effort by the suffragists to force Gov. Albert Roberts to call the legislature back to Nashville. He finally, reluctantly, did, but even so, Tennessee was not a promising site for ratification. The state suffrage association was energetic but fractured by regional and personal animosities, the governor unpopular, the legislature notoriously susceptible to bribery and special interest pressure.
As Catt made her way to Nashville on that Saturday evening, she confessed to a suffrage colleague: “I do not believe there is a ghost of a chance of ratification in Tennessee.” But she also knew there was no choice but to try.
The same was true for White, who had a native-daughters’ knowledge of Tennessee political customs, but a tiny staff and bare-bones budget with which to lead the Woman’s Party ratification effort in Nashville. The Woman’s Party wasn’t popular in Tennessee; their confrontational tactics of picketing the White House and burning President Woodrow Wilson in effigy were condemned as not only unladylike, but unpatriotic. White herself had participated in these protests, had been arrested and imprisoned, and proudly wore her “prison pin” – the Woman’s Party’s medal of honor – on her lapel. Now she was returning home to confront her erstwhile Tennessee suffrage colleagues, who’d condemned her for being too radical.
Pearson, however, was excited as she made her journey to the state capital. Her “anti” colleagues across the state and around the nation were rallying to her side, promising to feverishly fight to prevent what they warned would be “the moral collapse of the nation” should ratification succeed.
Such hyperbole was nothing new: Suffragists had always been considered dangerous, a threat to the natural (meaning male-constructed) order of the world. Over the decades, suffragists endured contempt and ridicule in their communities, their churches, their clubs, the press – and often within their own families. They’d been spat upon and pelted with rotten eggs and spoiled vegetables. Anthony used to say that she could mark the progress of the movement by the projectiles thrown at her: When the eggs and tomatoes were no longer of the rotten variety, that was progress.
Suffragists were physically attacked by mobs of angry men and boys while police looked the other way. They’d been roughly arrested; been held in fetid, cold, vermin-infested cells; been shackled to the wall; and endured abuse and even torture in jail. When they went on hunger strikes, they were force-fed, tubes rammed up their noses.
All the old tropes about subversive and dangerous suffragists would be trotted out in Nashville and given an additional spin: These women agitators were a threat to Christianity, to the American family, and to the foundations of Southern white supremacy.
With the arrival of the three demurely dressed campaign generals the battle was joined in Nashville, and all the forces – for and against the federal amendment – gathered in the city for a giant six-week brawl. Suffragists from across the state and around the nation flooded into the capital, joined by political party operatives, lobbyists, journalists, and beleaguered legislators.
There were powerful forces working against ratification in Tennessee – political, corporate, and ideological foes, each with their own reasons for resistance. Politicians feared an unpredictable new voting bloc: 27 million women would be eligible to vote if the amendment was ratified, and no one knew how they would cast their ballots. The suffragists had long promised – or threatened – a solid “women’s vote,” which, when unleashed, could benefit political friends and punish enemies. The 1920 presidential candidates, Republican Warren G. Harding and his vice presidential running mate, Calvin Coolidge, and their Democratic rivals, James Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt, were all carefully calibrating their level of support for Tennessee’s ratification with the calculation of whether it would help or hurt their White House chances and their party.
Clergymen in Tennessee and elsewhere were split on the issue of women voting. Some actively supported suffrage, but others believed it violated “God’s plan” for the daughters of Eve to be happily subservient to the sons of Adam, and women screaming for equality was a violation of biblical teachings. Pearson and her anti colleagues encouraged Tennessee pastors to rail against the amendment from their Sunday pulpits while debates raged in the statehouse.
Corporations also often joined the ranks of the opponents, believing that suffrage would be bad for their bottom lines. In Tennessee, several powerful industries provided influence and funds to the anti-ratification drive. It was well known that the railroads had purchased the cooperation of the legislature for favorable treatment with money, gifts, and lucrative jobs. Placing women into the electoral mix threatened the industry’s investments in pliant legislators.
Tennessee textile manufacturers were afraid women might want to vote to abolish child labor, and the mills relied on the cheap labor of both children and exploited women. They gave their workers a holiday and shipped them to Nashville to protest against ratification.
Whiskey was also big business in Tennessee, and the historic alliance between the suffrage and temperance movements ensured liquor industry opposition to women voting. Prohibition was already in effect in the summer of 1920 – the 18th Amendment had been quickly ratified in Tennessee – but liquor interests feared that women would insist that Prohibition be stringently enforced in the state, rather than with the usual wink and nod.
To make its case more alluring to Tennessee legislators, the liquor lobby sponsored a hospitality suite – really a speak-easy – on the eighth floor of The Hermitage Hotel (where Catt, White, and Pearson were staying), which came to be known as the Jack Daniels Suite, in honor of Tennessee’s favorite spirit. There legislators were plied with free booze, day and night, and treated to a lesson on why they should vote against ratification. Many a state lawmaker could be spotted emerging from the suite in a stupor, requiring he be thrown into a shower to sober up before returning to the General Assembly chambers.
In the first weeks of the ratification campaign, stalwart native Tennessee suffragists took up the front-line positions in persuading their representatives to support the amendment, chasing them with pledge cards to commit to passage. “I’m with you women ’til the cows come home,” insisted one Tennessee delegate on his card. His, along with many similar pledges, would dissolve in the heat of the Nashville battle.
While Catt’s NAWSA suffragists were traipsing through the hills and hollers of the state, finding their delegates to pledge, White’s Woman’s Party team of veteran field organizers was doing the same. Catt toured the state herself, rallying her troops, conferring with political leaders, compiling a list of which legislators were known to take bribes – it was a long list. Once back in Nashville, she fired off telegrams to the presidential candidates, the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties, prominent U.S. senators, and President Wilson, urging them all to exert whatever pressure they could on Tennessee.
Pearson’s cadre of Tennessee antis was bolstered by the arrival of regional and national anti-suffrage luminaries from New York, Washington, Boston, and many Southern cities. They set up a lavish headquarters in the Hermitage, complete with a “museum” of artifacts and documents they hoped could convince legislators and the public that suffragists were not just wrong, but evil.
One prominent Nashville suffrage leader who was not invited to join the lobbying efforts was Juno Frankie Pierce. As an experienced and respected activist in Nashville’s African American community, she’d organized Black women to take up the suffrage cause, and she had forged a rare cooperative arrangement with white Nashville suffragists to work toward common policy goals. At a time when many suffrage organizations, not only in the South, were racially segregated, Pierce had addressed a recent meeting of the white suffragists, emphasizing the potential strength of Black women voters.
“What will the Negro woman do with the vote?” Pierce asked her white allies. “We are interested in the same moral uplift of the community in which we live as you are,” she explained, asking their support for the legislative priorities of the Black community. “We are asking only one thing – a square deal.”
It was a taboo-shattering moment of Tennessee women working across the color line to achieve political goals, but even the persuasive Pierce would not be invited to lobby her state’s completely white and male legislature. She could not help convince them to vote for ratification, and the idea of a Black woman advocating for the vote might make them less inclined to approve it. Neither would Pierce be allowed to sit with her fellow suffragists in the chambers’ segregated visitors galleries. She could only watch the unfolding drama from the sidelines.
When the governor finally convened the legislature into special session and the delegates poured into Nashville, both “suffs” and “antis” were there to meet them at Union Station, armed with floral badges of affiliation – yellow roses for ratification supporters, red roses for those opposed – poised to be pinned on willing lapels. From then on, the Tennessee campaign would be known as the War of the Roses, and Nashville would become a petal-strewn battlefield.
The confrontation was intense, and wild. There were spies roaming the hallways, bribes under the table, and maneuvers in the chambers. Nashville was awash with conspiracies and kidnappings and even death threats, compromising setups, fake telegrams calling legislators home to false emergencies. The antis weaponized racial fears and waved the Confederate flag as their symbol of defiance. Commentators called it “suffrage Armageddon.”
The suffragists were betrayed by the speaker of the House, the publisher of one of Nashville’s major daily newspapers, as well as one of the presidential candidates, but also found some unlikely champions, including the Tennessee governor. The pledges to ratify mysteriously dissolved as the pressure on legislators ratcheted up, and on the eve of the final vote the tally showed ratification falling short. Pearson was overjoyed, White was furious, and even the unflappable Catt was in despair.
What happened the next morning is one of the great tales of American history. The outcome of the ratification battle came down to a single vote of conscience cast by the youngest member of the Tennessee legislature, with a nudge from his mother.
Harry Thomas Burn, age 24, a freshman delegate from the tiny eastern town of Niota, had worn a red rose in his lapel and voted with the anti-suffragists on all previous motions. He personally believed women should have the right to vote, but he was up for reelection in the fall, and his constituents opposed the amendment. It seemed safer to just go with the flow of those voting against ratification.
But on the morning of the final tally, he received a letter from his mother, Phoebe (Febb) Burn, a staunch suffragist, who conveyed the usual news about Niota – updates on the family and even a shopping list for Harry. But she also expressed her disappointment that Harry was not mentioned in the newspapers as favoring ratification. “Be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt … with ratification,” she admonished him.
Burn tucked the letter into his jacket pocket, next to his heart, as he sat through the final debates and roll calls in the House chamber on the morning of Aug. 18. When his name was called for the final vote on ratification, the tally was tied. He could duck no longer. He had to take a stand.
Burn shocked the chamber by voting aye for ratification. The antis accused him of taking a bribe to change his vote. He was unapologetic. “I believe in full suffrage as a right,” Burn told his colleagues. “And I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”
The 19th Amendment entered the U.S. Constitution on Aug. 26, 1920, and bells tolled around the country; it was the largest expansion of the electorate in American history. But the amendment still faced resistance, violent reaction, and Supreme Court challenges. And, as we know, the promise of the 19th Amendment was immediately subverted by Jim Crow laws in the Southern states, including Tennessee, impeding the right to vote for many Black women through discriminatory poll taxes, outrageous literacy tests, intimidation, and violence. They were the same tactics used to historically deny the vote to Black men. Congress never used its powers of enforcement – stated clearly in the second section of the amendment – to protect the vote for Black women. And because Native Americans and Asian Americans were not considered citizens in 1920, the 19th Amendment did not apply to the women of those communities until decades later.
The themes behind the ratification of the 19th Amendment a century ago seem ripped from today’s headlines: voting rights and women’s rights, inequality, dark money in politics, states’ rights, the ghosts of the Civil War, and racism.
The story of American women winning the vote is an inspiring tale of ordinary citizens rising to lead, of grassroots activists protesting injustice and demanding equality. But it is also a cautionary tale; it’s complicated and messy. Reform movements are imperfect, and moral compromises were made to achieve success; white suffragists left their Black sisters behind. We should learn from those mistakes.
As we’ve watched demonstrations against systemic racism and inequality spread across the nation, there are historic flashbacks to the great suffrage marches, to their picket lines, their protests – and arrests – in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, and to their exercise of civil disobedience. They pioneered many of these tactics.
The woman suffragists offer a legacy of persistence and courage that holds vital lessons for today’s political activists: Protest is important – and patriotic – but it must be followed up by well-designed and sustained political strategies in order to enact lasting change. The suffragists did not just march and picket; they also debated and lobbied, drafted legislation and campaigned. They learned to effectively communicate their cause to the public, build alliances, master the intricacies of legislative procedure, and pull the levers of political power.
And they kept going even after the 19th Amendment was secured: Catt founded the League of Women Voters, also celebrating its centennial anniversary this year, and today in the forefront of demanding voting rights protections. And Paul – along with White – drafted the next step in the campaign for women’s rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, introduced into Congress in 1923. It is still not fully ratified, and its final outcome now lies with the courts.
Another lesson from the era: The struggle to protect and expand our democracy is ongoing. It was not accomplished in 1920, and it is still not complete today, as voting rights for many groups, particularly minorities, remain under threat.
Voting rights are the stress test of the health of our democracy. The most meaningful way to commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment this August and the legacy of the suffragists and the suffrage movement – made up of women of all ages, classes, and races, of all political persuasions and party affiliations – is to rededicate ourselves to expanding and improving our democracy by protecting voting rights for all citizens. Making sure every citizen can vote without barriers, without difficulty, without fear.
Only then can the words of the preamble of our Constitution, “We the People,” ring loud and ring true.
Elaine Weiss is the author of “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote.”