- Historic Sites
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
But the governor still hesitated, wiring the President on June 24 that he had to consult his own state attorney general in Tennessee, to see “if ratification can now be made.” And with that, Governor Roberts became, for the next few days, the target of an unprecedented avalanche of messages, opinions, supplications—most of which were announced to the press even before they reached his desk in Nashville.
In New York, NAWSA made public the opinion of their distinguished chief counsel, no less an authority than the Honorable Charles Evans Hughes, a former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Republican presidential nominee, who announced that the Tennessee legislature “has, in my judgment, full authority to ratify.” From San Francisco, as their convention was getting under way, Homer S. Cummings, the Democratic National Committee’s chairman, telephoned Nashville long distance to urge Governor Roberts to convene the legislature. Tennessee’s own U.S. Senator Kenneth McKellar, serving on the convention’s platform committee, sponsored a plank specifically urging the Democratic governor and legislators of Tennessee to unite in an effort to complete ratification.
Anne Dallas Dudley had once demolished an Anti’s argument that, because only men bear arms, only men should vote, with the observation, “Yes, but women bear armies.”
Back home, meanwhile, anti-suffragists from all over Tennessee, many of them the governor’s own supporters, had bestirred themselves and were bombarding Roberts with threats of defeat in the primary if he dared to call a special session. But his main opponent in the primary, a Colonel W. F. Crabtree, who was strongly backed by two influential newspapers, the Nashville Tennessean and the Chattanooga News , warned what would happen if Roberts did not call the session: “Some Republican state will ratify and rob Tennessee of its chance for glory.…” And to top it all off, Frank M. Thompson, attorney general of Tennessee, handed the governor an elaborate opinion that boiled down to this: No legal barrier to an extra session now existed.
The harried governor acted. In Nashville, on Monday, June 28, he announced his promise to formally call the Tennessee legislature into special session. Not immediately—he still hoped to defuse ratification as an issue in the August 5 primary—but on August 9, “in ample time for women to vote in the 1920 elections.”
When the news reached San Francisco, the convened Democrats were euphoric. The Perfect 36, it seemed, had just been delivered to them, and along with it, so it was believed, the women’s vote and victory in November. From that moment until they all went home a week later to begin campaigning for their chosen candidates—Ohio’s Governor James Cox for President and a handsome young New Yorker named Franklin D. Roosevelt for Vice President—the Democrats repeatedly demonstrated their new-found convictions that women voters could do no wrong, and that Tennessee was a state without blemish.
The convention’s most spontaneous outburst came when Anne Dallas Dudley, delegate-at-large from Tennessee, rose to make a seconding speech for one of the nominees. This lovely, blue-eyed Nashville blueblood had marched in suffrage parades with her wealthy husband’s encouragement and her two beautiful young children in tow, and had lobbied most effectively for female enfranchisement in a day when the Antis like to label all Suffs as “she-males.” Her wit and eloquence as an orator were legendary. (She had once demolished an Anti debater’s argument that, because only men bear arms, only men should vote, with the observation, “Yes, but women bear armies.”) Now, as Mrs. Dudley mounted the podium in San Francisco, the band musicians down on the floor took one look at her and swung into the familiar measures of a popular song of the day. Soon the entire Democratic National Convention joined in, singing “Oh, You Beautiful Doll!”
However, it was still too soon to hail victory. No one knew this better than Carrie Chapman Catt. The veteran, white-haired campaigner had dispatched a four-page, single-spaced letter to Catherine Kenny in Nashville, “not so much to congratulate you as to warn you of the pitfalls which surely lie between this date and the 9th of August.” Mrs. Catt then proceeded to outline, point by point, the sort of tactics that could be expected from the antisuffragists, and the “antidotes” that the suffragists must aggressively pursue. Among other things, she insisted on enlisting the help of males: “No matter how well the women may work, ratification in Tennessee will go through the work and action of men, and the great motive that will finally put it through will be political and nothing else. We have long since recovered from our previous faith in the action of men based upon a love of justice. Therefore, if you have not done so, secure a Men’s Ratification Committee, the biggest and most important men of the state, men of every political faction, representative of all classes. Do it quick before the opposition has made it impossible. Not less than one hundred men, more if you can. Print all their names on your stationery—West Virginia did it on the back of their stationery—no matter what it costs.…”