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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 legislators had started arriving at Nashville’s Union Station early Saturday morning. They were a mixed bag of Southern gentlemen, run-of-the-courthouse politicians, small-town merchants, good old country boys, and earnest Bible Belt fundamentalists—the sort who would pass laws that, a few years later, would again bring national attention to Tennessee during the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial.” The moment they stepped off their cinder-gritted trains, they were buttonholed, quite literally, by sweet-talking, flowerdispensing Southern ladies. Antis had adopted the American Beauty red rose as their emblem; the Suffs were handing out yellow roses. Boutonnieres blossomed as men agreed to show their colors. The Tennessee ratification fight would hereafter be known popularly as the War of the Roses.
There were more arrivals. U.S. Senator Kenneth McKellar was in from Washington, huddling with the Suffs, bringing encouragement from the Wilson administration. Miss Charl Ormond Williams, the Democratic National Committee’s new woman vice chairman (their first ever, and a Tennessee woman at that) had come from Shelby County, pledging to spend “every hour of every day” working for passage of the ratification resolution. And Republicans had also sent down their new woman vice chairman, Mrs. Harriet Taylor Upton, a well-known Ohio suffragist.
Another new arrival was Mrs. Ruffin G. Pleasant, wife of Louisiana’s crusading anti-ratificationist ex-governor and, according to Miss Josephine Pearson’s press release, “the daughter of Major General Ector, C.S.A., who had three horses shot from under him at the battle of Lookout Mountain.” A still greater coup for the Antis was the presence in Nashville of Miss Kate Gordon of New Orleans and Miss Laura Clay of Kentucky, both veteran suffragists and former national officers of NAWSA who had once hobnobbed with Susan B. Anthony herself. But because they believed in suffrage through state action only, both had resigned when NAWSA endorsed the federal Amendment. Now, for the greater glory of States’ rights, Miss Gordon and Miss Clay would join with the Antis in distributing pamphlets that accused all suffragists of being “atheistic feminists who rewrote the Bible,” “destroyed the home,” and “blackened the honor of Robert E. Lee.”
The representative from rural Meigs County had assured Mrs. Kenny in June that, “Anything you League of Women Voters want of me, command me.” He had become the first confirmed dropout, and was now working openly for the Antis.
If Nashville was, as a local slogan claimed, the “dimple of the Universe,” then the high-vaulted, marbled lobby of the Hermitage Hotel, by mid-afternoon on Saturday, August 7, had become the vortex of the dimple. Under the lobby’s stained-glass skylight, milling around in suffocating numbers, were men and women, Suffs and Antis, legislators and politicians, Republicans and Democrats—all panting to learn what the others were up to. Mixing in the melee were certain “mystery men,” the sort who had appeared in every state capital where ratification had been considered. Old campaigners easily spotted numerous railroad lobbyists and representatives of textile manufacturers. Southern mill owners believed an inevitable result of woman suffrage would be sociopolitical demands for higher wages for women or, more inconvenient, the enactment of child labor laws.
Late that afternoon, some of the crowd moved upstairs to the mezzanine for the welcoming reception at Anti headquarters. As ceiling fans labored to redistribute the sultry Southern air, and red roses wilted on perspiring Southern bosoms, ladies of impeccable Confederate lineage thanked the legislators in advance for protecting Southern womanhood from the perils of enfranchisement. Some legislators, however, remained ambivalent. State Senator Lon McFarland from the blue-grass hills of middle Tennessee showed up in his white linen suit, black string tie, Panama hat, and a boutonnière that confounded his hostesses—it was a small talisman rosebud showing a bit of antisuffrage red tinged with about the same amount of suffrage yellow. The senator remained noncommittal throughout, but on leaving the Antis’ affair McFarland was heard to murmur to a friend a remark that became instant legend among the Suffs: “That bunch of fillies was the longest on pedigree and the shortest on looks that I ever saw.”
As the evening wore on, more and more legislators, singly and in small groups, were observed making their way to the elevators and requesting passage to the eighth floor. Word had gone around that in a certain eighth-floor room, in guarded privacy as discretion and the Eighteenth Amendment demanded, legislators would find available free, and in any quantity desired, their choice of Bourbon, moonshine whisky, or Tennessee’s favorite Jack Daniel’s “in the raw.” By midnight, many of Tennessee’s lawmakers could be seen and heard, reeling happily up and down the halls of the Hermitage. Though some of them were singing the Antis’ theme song, “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” it was clear to every waking suffragist that the pros and cons of ratification were of little or no concern to any of them.