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Countdown In Tennessee, 1920
The hour-by-hour suspenseful story of the climactic struggle for equal voting rights for women
December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
Meanwhile, once-promising West Virginia was now hopelessly deadlocked. Restive Antis demanded that the legislature close up shop and go home. But an absent pro-suffrage legislator, Senator Jesse A. Bloch, rushed back home by special train from California—five days across the continent while his embattled colleagues fought adjournment and the country watched and waited—to break a tie vote in the State Senate on March 10 and make West Virginia the thirtyfourth ratifying state. On March 22, news was flashed across the country that the legislature of the state of Washington, called into special session at long last by a dilatory governor, had unanimously completed ratification number thirty-five in just twelve minutes. Where was number thirty-six?
Six states, all Southern, had already rejected the Amendment. Only seven states had not yet acted, and three of these—Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina—were also from the Deep and Democratic South. No chance there, where memories of federally controlled elections during Reconstruction still rankled, and the Nineteenth Amendment, with its Section 2 granting enforcement powers to Congress, was anathema. Nor was there much hope up in the two New England Republican states of Connecticut and Vermont. Both had strong anti-suffragist governors who had proven granitelike in their refusal even to consider calling their reportedly pro-suffrage legislatures into special session.
This meant that the Suff s would have to find their “Perfect 36,” as cartoonists had labeled the elusive thirty-sixth ratification, either in Delaware or in Tennessee. And the border state of Tennessee was decidedly a question mark. Incumbent Tennessee legislators, in the session just adjourned, somewhat surprisingly had granted women voters partial suffrage in presidential and municipal elections—the first of the old Confederacy states to do so. But full, federally imposed woman suffrage was a mare of a different color. In any case, Tennessee was hemmed in by a provision in its own state constitution requiring that any federal amendment be acted upon only by a legislature that “shall have been elected after such amendment is submitted.” This clearly meant after the 1920 elections. For this reason, Tennessee’s Governor Albert H. Roberts (whose own suffrage sentiments were still unclear) had steadfastly claimed he could not call a special session of the current Tennessee legislature to act on ratification.
The ratification campaign had not just stalled. It was threatening to shift into reverse.
Which left only Delaware. In 1787 Delaware had been the first state to ratify the Constitution itself, and for a time in that spring of 1920, it promised to be the last and deciding state to ratify the Constitution’s Nineteenth Amendment. Delaware’s fervently pro-suffrage Republican Governor John G. Townsend had called the Republican-controlled legislature into special session on March 22, the very day of the thirty-fifth ratification out in Washington. Since comfortable Republican majorities in both legislative houses had long since pledged their votes for ratification, suffragists confidently expected quick action. But Delaware Republicans were in the midst of a fierce party feud. An almost equal division between pro-Townsend and anti-Townsend factions ensured that whatever the governor favored, his political rivals would oppose. In such circumstances pledges were forgotten, and amidst charges of vote swapping, bribe taking, and double cross, the possibility of achieving stable proratification majorities in both houses of the legislature slipped away. Weeks dragged by. March turned to April, April to May. The legislature remained in session, but no action was taken. Chances for victory in Republican Delaware receded with each passing day.
Then, most ominous of all, came the danger that some of the already-certified ratifications might be “recalled.” In Ohio, one of the first states to act favorably on the Amendment, petitions had been filed for a statewide referendum in which voters could confirm or reject their legislature’s ratification. A recently adopted article in Ohio’s own state constitution specifically allowed such a referendum. The U.S. Constitution, on the other hand, is equally specific in not providing for recall referendums in its straightforward requirement for amendment ratification by state legislatures, and the validity of the Ohio referendum provision was being contested in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the Antis, reveling in the legal havoc being created, were busily circulating petitions for similar post-ratification referendums in Missouri, Nebraska, Maine, and Massachusetts, with more to come. The ratification campaign had not just stalled. It was threatening to shift into reverse.
June 2, 1920, was the day of decision in Delaware’s legislature. Ratification lost. Worried Republicans wondered if their party would be blamed nationally for the debacle. They didn’t have long to wonder. The following week, when the Republican National Convention of 1920 opened in the Coliseum in Chicago—a convention from whose “smoke-filled rooms” Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio would emerge as nominee for President—a long line of women, dressed in white and wearing the suffragists’ emblematic yellow sashes, marched on the Coliseum. They carried the purple, white, and gold tricolor of the Woman’s Party, and their banners read: REPUBLICANS, WE ARE HERE. WHERE ISTHE 36TH STATE ?