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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
The convention hastily inserted a plank in their platform expressing the “earnest hope that Republican legislatures in States which have not yet acted upon the Suffrage Amendment will ratify.…” In the Coliseum, the suffragists hung a banner reading: WE DO NOT WANT PLANKS. WE DEMAND THE SGTH STATE . Republican leaders besieged the anti-ratificationist Republican governors of Vermont and Connecticut with pleas to relent and call special sessions. Suffragists in both states beseeched with letters, telegrams, delegations. This massive pressure brought continued massive resistance. Governor Percival W. Clement of Vermont announced after due reflection that he “did not care to make a decision at once.” Governor Marcus A. Holcomb of Connecticut declared that no one had proved to him “the existence of a ‘special emergency,’ ” and he must decline.
Fortunately, however, June 2 had also been a day of decision in the U.S. Supreme Court. And there, ratification had been rescued from uncertain limbo. The Court’s ruling on the Ohio referendum case declared flatly, “The Federal Constitution, and not the constitutions of the several States, controls the method by which the U.S. Constitution may be amended.” There would be no post-ratification referendums to threaten the gains already made.
“Of course you’ve heard the good news that Tennessee may the ‘perfect 36.’ Wouldn’t it be glorious to have the 36th state come from way down here in anti-suffrage country where the mossbacks stay?”
So began the letter to NAWSA headquarters in New York, postmarked Nashville, dated June 21, 1920, and signed by Catherine Tatey Kenny, Chairman of Ratification, Tennessee League of Women Voters. A natural choice for the key post of state ratification chairman, Mrs. Kenny was a cheerful, motherly looking woman who, in serving the cause, had done everything from throwing out the first ball at the Nashville baseball park one spring day, when players adorned their uniforms with sashes of suffrage yellow and played a Suffrage Day game, to traveling across the state making speeches from the rear platform of a train known as the “Tennessee Suffrage Special.” (On that trip, when a heckler kept suggesting that the ladies all go home because, in the watchword of the era, “Home is woman’s sphere,” Mrs. Kenny had silenced him with a simple proclamation: “Woman’s sphere is the world.”)
Now, with Tennessee moving into the ratification spotlight, Catherine Kenny held center stage. She loved every minute of it. She had opened a Ratification Headquarters for her committee at the famous old Maxwell House, long a favorite hangout for state politicians, and she explained in her letter to NAWSA headquarters what she saw as the main obstacle: Tennessee’s Governor Roberts, a mild-mannered, deliberate teacher-turned-lawyer whose principal advisers were hopelessly split on the question of ratification, whose main interest was tax reform, and whose main worry was renomination—which normally in Democratic Tennessee was tantamount to re-election. “He is afraid to call the session [Mrs. Kenny wrote] because he can’t afford to take time off from his campaign before the primary August 5th.
“Now here is our hope: In Tennessee we all swear by Woodrow Wilson, exhausting every adjective in our voluminous Southern vocabulary to praise and glorify his every word and deed.…Yesterday I conceived the idea of having the President wire Governor Roberts a loving message telling him to deliver the 36th state for the Democrats. I’ve sent a telegram to the President tonight signed by our entire State Executive Board League of Women Voters (32 names). If you know any way in the world to get that telegram by Mr. Tumulty to the President, for the love of Mike help…”
Someone at NAWSA evidently did know how to circumvent (or wheedle) Joe Tumulty, White House watchdog for the now-ailing President, exhausted by his vain efforts to sell Americans on membership in the League of Nations. And Wilson, who hoped women voters would favor the League, found it politic to pay heed. On June 23,1920, just hours after Mrs. Kenny’s letter arrived in New York, the Department of Justice in Washington was asked by President Wilson to render an opinion concerning application of the Supreme Court’s Ohio referendum decision to the constitution of Tennessee. Mrs. Kenny’s lawyer friends had contended that the provision postponing legislative action on a federal amendment until after the state’s next election made that election itself a referendum in everything but name. The U.S. assistant attorney general, John L. Frierson, himself a Tennessean, agreed. His instant opinion, delivered that afternoon on behalf of the Justice Department, declared, “If the people of a State through their Constitution can delay action on an amendment until after an election, there is no reason why they cannot delay it until after two elections or five elections … thus practically nullifying the article of the Federal Constitution providing for amendment.”
Late that same day, June 23, 1920, Woodrow Wilson telegraphed Governor Roberts just the sort of “loving message” Mrs. Kenny had envisioned: “It would be a real service to the party and to the nation if it is possible for you, under the peculiar provision of your State Constitution, having in mind the recent decision of the Supreme Court in the Ohio case, to call a special session of the Legislature of Tennessee to consider the Suffrage Amendment. Allow me to urge this most earnestly.”