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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
That same weekend, another telegram had gone off from Nashville—this one to Miss Josephine Anderson Pearson of Monteagle, Tennessee, the state president of the Tennessee Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage: “Mrs. Catt arrived. Extra session imminent. Our forces being notified to rally at once. Send orders and come immediately.” Fifty-two-year-old Josephine Pearson, educator, elocutionist, and pamphleteer extraordinaire , had been the recognized leader of women Antis in Tennessee for the past half-decade. It was from her mother that she derived an overwrought antipathy toward both whisky and woman suffrage. 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. But Josephine’s mother, shortly before she died in 1915, had elicited a vow from her daughter that, should consideration of the Susan B. Anthony amendment ever come to Tennessee, Josephine would work against its passage. Josephine later recalled how that deathbed promise, plus her reading in a local newspaper the infuriating suggestion that anti-suffragists were in league with the whisky ring, had changed her life.
On that sweltering Saturday afternoon of July 17, responding to the telegraphed summons, Josephine Pearson came down off her cool mountain and took the train to Nashville. She checked in at the Hermitage Hotel, asking for the cheapest room, and at the same time engaged the hotel’s mezzanine assembly rooms as campaign headquarters for the Antis. That night she was unable to sleep in her sticky little room. “The only way I could endure the heat,” she later wrote, “was to stand all night under the cool shower, from whence I composed telegrams to send out to Anti leaders all over the nation. Came promptly the official assurance from New York and Boston—‘our forces en route.’” When representatives of the national anti-suffrage organization arrived next day, their first action was to move their Tennessee chapter president to a larger and cooler room commanding a view of the turreted dome of Tennessee’s handsome State Capitol Building a few blocks away.
Now the battle lines were drawn. For three weeks they waited, Suffs and Antis, tension mounting, for Tennessee to finish its primary fight and get on with the main event—ratification. New combatants joined the ranks daily. Strategies took shape as maneuver met countermaneuver.
The Antis’ first decision—calculated to point up Mrs. Catt’s “outside agitator” status—was to change the name and affiliation of their state organization. On newly printed stationery of the “Tennessee Division of the Southern Women’s League for the Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment”—soon known simply as the Southern Women’s Rejection League—President Pearson wrote to “representative women” throughout Tennessee, appealing not for financial aid, but for “active moral backing” to fight three “deadly principles” lurking in the Nineteenth Amendment: “1st. Surrender of state sovereignty. 2nd. Negro woman suffrage. 3rd. Race equality.”
Meanwhile,Mrs. Catt,in a letter to her League of Women Voters troops, reported that a legislative poll, conducted by Mrs. Kenny, showed many uncommitted legislators. She urged the league to “collect a group of earnest and well-informed local women—the larger the deputation the more impressive it will be—and visit these men yourself.” In her book Woman Suffrage and Politics , published in 1923, Mrs. Catt told how Tennessee suffragists responded: “The Southern summer heat was merciless, and many legislators lived in remote villages or on farms miles from any town. Yet the women trailed these legislators, by train, by motor, by wagons and on foot, often in great discomfort, and frequently at considerable expense to themselves. They went without meals, were drenched in unexpected rains, and met with ‘tire troubles,’ yet no woman faltered.…”
On Sunday, July 25, the Tennessee League of Women Voters announced that their latest legislative poll, based in most cases on signed pledges from the members, showed an assured majority in both houses for ratification.
Miss Josephine Pearson, undaunted, summoned the faithful to Anti headquarters at the Hermitage to prepare exhibits, mail out literature, and plan garden parties. Headlines on the women’s pages announced that “Social Leaders Oppose Vote,” and a press release proclaimed the arrival of Mrs. James S. Pinckard of Montgomery, Alabama, president general of the Southern Women’s Rejection League and “grand-niece of John C. Calhoun,” fresh from victory in Louisiana, where another Southern legislature, with befitting regional decorum, had just rejected ratification. And the Antis’ star orator, the quick-witted, sharp-tongued Miss Charlotte Rowe, was down from New York to ply her skills in behalf of the cause. She had seen suffrage leaders at the recent Democratic Convention in San Francisco, she told a reporter, “jump upon desks and permit men to hoist them to their shoulders, and one even went so far as to do an Indian war dance in front of the speaker’s stand.” Such scenes, said Miss Rowe, were enough to convince anyone that woman suffrage was a menace to womanhood.