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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
To offset these sallies, the Suffs announced formation of their Men’s Ratification Committee—207 names, headed by former Democratic Governor Tom C. Rye, and including former Republican Governor Ben Hooper, plus an impressive array of judges, doctors, lawyers, mayors, businessmen, military men, and labor leaders. As evidence that their alliance with Governor Roberts had not come unstuck, there was the name of not only the incumbent governor himself, but also two important Roberts backers—House Speaker Seth Walker, an engaging and infuential legislator whose involvement would be crucial, and the powerful, irascible, seventy-six-year-old publisher of the conservative Nashville Banner , Major E. B. Stahlman, whose support meant that both Nashville papers would now favor ratification.
The Antis countered with a Tennessee Constitutional League for men, formed under the direction of Everett P. Wheeler, a New York lawyer who headed the American Constitutional League and had come with a large staff to Nashville to keep the legal cauldron boiling. Signing on with him was a scattering of Vanderbilt University professors, a host of Nashville attorneys, and enough Tennessee politicians and legislators to cause uneasiness in the ratification camp. That uneasiness increased when the Chattanooga Times , quite as stiff-necked an editorial foe of suffrage as the New York Times , printed an extraordinary legal opinion. Any legislator who voted for ratification during the special session, according to the Times , would be violating his oath of office, which swore him to uphold his state constitution and all its existing provisions—even including provisions that already had been held to be invalid. In sum, “My state constitution, right or wrong.” Suffragists slyly suggested that a vote against ratification could also be a violation of a legislator’s oath; Antis replied, very well, to play safe, let the legislature take no action when called into extra session.
Mrs. Catt was now motoring across the state on a speaking tour with Abby Crawford Milton. Endeavoring to clear the air, she tacked the “oath issue” wherever she appeared—at luncheons with the Memphis Chamber of Commerce or the Nashville Kiwanis Club, at conferences with elected officials in Jackson, at citizens’ meetings in Knoxville and Chattanooga. She reminded Tennesseans that “every legislator takes an oath of loyalty to two Constitutions, an obligation that comes from the Federal Constitution (Article VI, Section 3). The possibility of conflict between the two was foreseen, and the Federal Constitution (Article VI, Section 2) declares that to be the supreme law of the land.”
The moment the legislators stepped off their cinder-gritted trains, they were buttonholed hy sweet-talking flower-dispensing Southern ladies.
Meanwhile, there was action on the national scene—which, in that summer of 1920, meant Ohio, home state of the presidential nominees of both major parties. Veteran suffragists from all over the country, skilled in the parry and thrust of congressional lobbying, appeared on the doorsteps of both candidates to urge them to apply pressure to Tennessee legislators. In Columbus, Governor Cox promised his callers he would go to Tennessee, if necessary, to campaign for ratification among Democratic legislators. And from his front porch in Marion, Senator Harding assured a delegation of Woman’s Party marchers, led by one of Tennessee’s own pioneer suffragists, seventy-one-year-old Lizzie Crozier French, that he did, indeed, support their aim. Late in July, both Harding and Cox sent approving telegrams to Mrs. Catt, which said, with what must have been heartfelt sincerity, how glad they were that she was in Tennessee.
By August 1, still another ratification headquarters was operating in Nashville. The National Woman’s Party had set up shop at the Tulane Hotel and, while their national chairman, Alice Paul, remained in Washington to orchestrate further pressure on party leaders, a corps of attractive and spirited Woman’s Party crusaders had appeared in Tennessee to work with Sue Shelton White, their politically sagacious young state chairman. “Miss Sue” herself took charge in Nashville, where the once solidly pro-ratification Davidson County delegation was now rumored to be wobbling. Betty Gram, a pert and smiling young Oregonian, went to the suffragist stronghold of Memphis to keep fences mended in Shelby County’s big Democratic delegation. And a tiny, tireless South Carolinian, Anita Pollitzer, headed up into the Great Smokies of east Tennessee to round up a few more Republican pledges.
Tennessee awoke on August 6 to the news that Governor Roberts had won renomination in the Democratic primary. On Saturday, August 7, true to his promise, the governor issued a proclamation calling the Sixty-first Tennessee General Assembly into extraordinary session in the State Capitol at noon on the following Monday. Suffs and Antis alike spent the rest of the weekend in last-minute rallyings for that high noon.