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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
Early the following week, the now beleaguered Mrs. Kenny wired NAWSA requesting assistance with press and public relations work. Mrs. Catt immediately dispatched to Nashville one of her young lieutenants, Marjorie Shuler, experienced in fieldwork in state ratification campaigns. Miss Shuler soon learned that ratification in Tennessee was already in big trouble. In a state famous for feuds, the current fracas involving Democrats, their governor, and their primary campaign inevitably would affect the ratification vote in the legislature—“just like Delaware.” Worse still, Tennessee’s factionalism seemed built in. There was the east-west division going back to the Civil War, when east Tennessee’s mountaineers, for the most part, had remained loyal to the Union after Tennessee voted to secede; there was an urban-rural split, pitting the larger cities such as Memphis, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Nashville against the “red-handkerchief boys” from hollows, hills, and hamlets. Then there was the wet-dry split, a matter not to be taken lightly at a time when the Eighteenth Amendment’s prohibition laws had just gone into effect; and finally there was the suffragist-anti-suffragist split, which seemed to cut across and betwixt the grain of all the other divisions.
But Miss Shuler’s most alarming discovery was that Governor Roberts, miffed because editorial attacks on him were continuing unabated in certain pro-ratification newspapers that opposed his renomination, was refusing to work with Catherine Kenny and the other officers of NAWSA’s state auxiliary, the Tennessee League of Women Voters. There was more logic than paranoia in his reasoning. The publisher of one such paper, the Chattanooga News , was George Fort Milton, husband of the league’s energetic and attractive state president, Abby Crawford Milton. And the anti-Roberts Tennessean of Nashville, sometimes referred to as the “official” suffragist paper in Tennessee, was published by Colonel Luke Lea, a former U.S. senator and returned war hero, who happened also to be a close family friend of Catherine Kenny.
To avoid dealing with Mrs. Milton and Mrs. Kenny, the governor, on July 1, had appointed the league’s popular and respected former president, Mrs. Leslie Warner of Nashville, as chairman of his ratification committee. Kate Burch Warner, a woman of penetrating intelligence and Vassar education, had opened a headquarters at Nashville’s newest and grandest hotel, the Hermitage, located strategically at the foot of Capitol Hill. She had set about selecting a Committee of one hundred—to afford representation for at least one woman from each of Tennessee’s ninety-six counties. But she soon realized, to her consternation, that the committee she headed was expected to supersede the committee headed by Mrs. Kenny, with whom she had no quarrel. Still, Mrs. Warner hesitated to resign for fear of offending the governor—and especially since the latest rumor had the governor so disturbed by the Suff alliance with his press enemies that he was threatening to renege entirely on his promise to call the special session in August.
Most temperance workers were devout suffragists as well, a fact that no doubt explained the consistently generous backing by the liquor interests of the anti-suffragist cause.
It was then that Carrie Chapman Catt darted into the fray. She wrote sharp letters of exhortation to all the ladies involved, arguing that ratification was doomed if they worked against each other in factions. “My dear Mrs. Warner,” she said in one missive, “If you tell the men that Mrs. Kenny is fighting you, and she tells them that you are fighting her, the only result will be that the men will call it a women’s fight and find plenty of excuses for declining to ratify.…” And with that, Mrs. Catt left for Nashville.
On July 17, a steamy, humid Saturday, Carrie Chapman Catt arrived in Nashville and went to work. She brought just one small traveling bag, expecting to stay only a few days. It would be six weeks before she returned to New York. During her first thirty-six hours in the state, the old campaigner set a brisk pace. She persuaded Luke Lea, the publisher of the Tennessean , to withhold for the good of the suffrage cause a planned attack lampooning Governor Roberts and “his” committee. She caught the campaigning governor “between trains,” and they agreed on mutual recognition by NAWSA and the governor of both Mrs. Kenny’s and Mrs. Warner’s committees. Then she scheduled meetings with Republican suffragists to suggest formation of a Republican Ratification Committee.
Late Sunday evening, just before she settled down in her hotel room to cool off, palm-leaf fan in hand, Mrs. Catt dispatched a night letter to NAWSA headquarters in New York: “Tennessee promising. Sending details by letter. Must stay indefinitely.…”