December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
The hour-by-hour suspenseful story of the climactic struggle for equal voting rights for women
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
At 5 P.M. on June 4, 1919, when the Sixty-sixth Congress yielded up the two-thirds majority required for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, a victory celebration among American woman suffragists seemed in order. After all, twenty-one successive Congresses had previously rejected this federal Suffrage Amendment, and it had taken over seventy years of petitioning, lobbying, politicking, and, most recently, picketing by four generations of right-to-vote crusaders to bring the struggle for enfranchisement of women to this high ground.
But the battle-weary, campaign-wise suffrage forces did not celebrate. In the headquarters of Carrie Chapman Catt’s National American Woman Suffrage Association at 171 Madison Avenue, New York, the joy was restrained. The NAWSA women remembered how often their brave labors to win full suffrage state by state through amendments to state constitutions had met with heartbreak; they remembered how regularly their stubborn skirmishes to win the half-a-loaf of partial suffrage (voting in presidential or municipal elections only) that was sometimes possible through state legislative enactment had ended in disappointment; they remembered how all of this had led inevitably to the concerted push for federal amendment action. And in remembering, they knew that total victory still had not been won. In the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party just off Lafayette Park in Washington on that June night, there was business as usual among Alice Paul’s select, young, banner-bearing color guards. They remembered how their silent and dramatic pro-Amendment demonstrations in the halls of Congress and at the gates of the White House had outraged, then intrigued, and finally touched the conscience of the American public; they remembered how this had helped overcome the last bastions of congressional resistance. And vet thev knew thev could not nause to celebrate.
For the long-fought-for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment by Congress in June, 1919, meant only the capture of a beachhead. The final battle in this nation’s longest and most civil “war,” the battle for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, still lay ahead. And up the forty-eight hills once more, all the way—that battle must be won in the states. State by state. To complete adoption of the Amendment now being submitted by Congress to the forty-eight states required ratification by legislatures in three-fourths of those states. The Suffs, as headline writers liked to call them, had to win in no fewer than thirty-six legislatures, while their opponents, the entrenched and well-heeled Antis, could kill the Amendment by squashing it in just thirteen legislatures. And behind the Antis’ formally organized battalions—a National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (for ladies) and American Constitutional League (for gentlemen)—stood the suffragists’ real and most powerful enemies, a shadowy conglomerate of special interests referred to by the suffragists as the whisky ring, the railroad trust, and the manufacturers’ lobby. Suffragist historian, Ida Husted Harper, once explained the how and why of their sinister manipulations: “The hand of the great moneyed corporations is on the lever of the party ‘machines.’ They can calculate to a nicety how many voters must be bought, how many candidates must be ‘fixed’ how many officials must be owned. The entrance of woman into the field would upset all calculations, add to the expenses if she were corruptible, and spoil the plans if she were not.”
Although no time limit for completion of ratification had been written into the Nineteenth Amendment (cynics were already predicting it would take twenty years), there was no time to lose if women’s votes were to count in the upcoming 1920 elections, a matter, as the Suffs often proclaimed, of patriotic pride no less than simple justice. In a world we had helped make so safe for democracy, democratic America could not lag behind. Women already voted in twenty-six other nations. (Including Germany! And Russia!!) More than that, the memory of American women’s contributions to Allied victory in World War I—their crucial work on farms and in offices, hospitals, and munitions factories—was rapidly fading, and with the country longing to return to what would soon be labeled “normalcy,” suffrage forces knew that psychologically it was action now or never.
Thus it was that, at 6 P.M. on Wednesday, June 4,1919, just one hour after the decisive U.S. Senate vote on the Nineteenth Amendment, the redoubtable, twice-widowed, sixty-year-old Carrie Chapman Catt, heiress to the mantle of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, veteran of more than thirty years in the suffrage movement and leader of its 2,000,000-member “traditional” wing, was hard at work in her office at NAWSA headquarters. She was methodically sending out telegrams to governors of all states where legislatures had already adjourned in that off-year of 1919, urging them to call special sessions to act on ratification as soon as possible. By midnight, the serenely efficient Mrs. Catt also had dispatched messages to each of the forty-eight state suffrage auxiliaries, exhorting them to put their long-planned ratification campaigns into high gear and reminding them, where necessary, to keep after their governors. Only when all of her own telegrams had gone out did Mrs. Catt read the congratulatory messages pouring in, among them a twoword cable from President Woodrow Wilson, in France for the Paris Peace Commission: “Glory Hallelujah!”
Alice Paul, too, was pushing on with single-minded intensity that Wednesday night. But the quiet, dedicated, thirty-five-year-old Quaker social worker, who had gone to prison as an activist convert to the votes-for-women cause in England a decade earlier and now was leader of an estimated twenty-five thousand women in the “militant” wing of the American movement, was not to be found in her office. She had boarded a train and was heading west to join her field workers in a whirlwind tour of the several states where legislatures were still in session and where, beginning early the next morning, suffragists would be demanding immediate ratification.
In years gone by, Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul had been contending rivals for the allegiance of American suffragists. The groups they led, the sprawling, well-established, persevering NAWSA, and the smaller, more maneuverable, less predictable Woman’s Party, had only recently been bitterly divided over tactics—particularly over the effectiveness of White House picketing to “educate” an initially reluctant President Wilson on the need for a federal Suffrage Amendment and the responsibility of party leadership to achieve it. Now, however, their strategies meshing by unpremeditated design, the rivals seemed to be taking this last giant step for womankind together.
It augured well for the climactic struggle ahead.
The first six ratifications came in an eight-day period: Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, Ohio, New York, Illinois. Letter writing and lobbying, speech making, and fund raising intensified. In the next seven weeks another seven states ratified. As summer wore on, still the Suff s campaigned —staging rallies, conducting polls, issuing press releases.
The Antis mobilized in kind. A corps of impassioned lady orators, headed by a woman attorney from Yonkers, New York, charged to state capitals as needed to warn the populace in general and legislators in particular that ratification was the first step toward socialism, free love, and the breakup of the American family. One Southern governor, Ruffin G. Pleasant of Louisiana, publicly sought a union of thirteen Anti states to prevent ratification.
By mid-September the pace of ratification had slackened. The suffragists were particularly distressed by the failure of Far Western states, whose own female citizens had long enjoyed full suffrage, to come to the aid of voteless women elsewhere. Of these, only Montana had ratified. So the Suffs, as was their habit when coping with disappointment, redoubled their efforts—more meetings with party leaders, more pleas for special sessions, more volunteers out rounding up pledges of support among more thousands of legislators.
By New Year’s Day, 1920, the total had reached twenty-two hard-won ratifications. Then, in late January and early February, clustered as if to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Susan B. Anthony on February 16, there came a bouquet of ten more ratifications. (It was Susan B. Anthony, most venerated and undeviating of suffrage leaders, who had put on paper the exact words of the federal Suffrage Amendment when it was first introduced in the Forty-fifth Congress in 1878 and then had watched its regular defeat in each session thereafter until her death in 1906—murmuring, according to suffragist mythology, “Failure is impossible!”)
Only four more states to go! Yet it was still too soon to celebrate. Or relax. The opposition was growing ever grimmer, the odds longer, the gains more costly.
In Oklahoma, Miss Aloysius Larch-Miller, a prominent and gifted young suffragist, ill with influenza, disregarded her doctor’s orders and left her sickbed to debate the state’s leading anti-suffragist politician at a state Democratic convention. Two days later she was dead. But her eloquence (plus her sacrifice) had won some decisive switch-over votes in the Democratic-controlled state legislature. On February 27, Oklahoma became the thirty-third state to ratify.
Meanwhile, once-promising West Virginia was now hopelessly deadlocked. Restive Antis demanded that the legislature close up shop and go home. But an absent pro-suffrage legislator, Senator Jesse A. Bloch, rushed back home by special train from California—five days across the continent while his embattled colleagues fought adjournment and the country watched and waited—to break a tie vote in the State Senate on March 10 and make West Virginia the thirtyfourth ratifying state. On March 22, news was flashed across the country that the legislature of the state of Washington, called into special session at long last by a dilatory governor, had unanimously completed ratification number thirty-five in just twelve minutes. Where was number thirty-six?
Six states, all Southern, had already rejected the Amendment. Only seven states had not yet acted, and three of these—Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina—were also from the Deep and Democratic South. No chance there, where memories of federally controlled elections during Reconstruction still rankled, and the Nineteenth Amendment, with its Section 2 granting enforcement powers to Congress, was anathema. Nor was there much hope up in the two New England Republican states of Connecticut and Vermont. Both had strong anti-suffragist governors who had proven granitelike in their refusal even to consider calling their reportedly pro-suffrage legislatures into special session.
This meant that the Suff s would have to find their “Perfect 36,” as cartoonists had labeled the elusive thirty-sixth ratification, either in Delaware or in Tennessee. And the border state of Tennessee was decidedly a question mark. Incumbent Tennessee legislators, in the session just adjourned, somewhat surprisingly had granted women voters partial suffrage in presidential and municipal elections—the first of the old Confederacy states to do so. But full, federally imposed woman suffrage was a mare of a different color. In any case, Tennessee was hemmed in by a provision in its own state constitution requiring that any federal amendment be acted upon only by a legislature that “shall have been elected after such amendment is submitted.” This clearly meant after the 1920 elections. For this reason, Tennessee’s Governor Albert H. Roberts (whose own suffrage sentiments were still unclear) had steadfastly claimed he could not call a special session of the current Tennessee legislature to act on ratification.
Which left only Delaware. In 1787 Delaware had been the first state to ratify the Constitution itself, and for a time in that spring of 1920, it promised to be the last and deciding state to ratify the Constitution’s Nineteenth Amendment. Delaware’s fervently pro-suffrage Republican Governor John G. Townsend had called the Republican-controlled legislature into special session on March 22, the very day of the thirty-fifth ratification out in Washington. Since comfortable Republican majorities in both legislative houses had long since pledged their votes for ratification, suffragists confidently expected quick action. But Delaware Republicans were in the midst of a fierce party feud. An almost equal division between pro-Townsend and anti-Townsend factions ensured that whatever the governor favored, his political rivals would oppose. In such circumstances pledges were forgotten, and amidst charges of vote swapping, bribe taking, and double cross, the possibility of achieving stable proratification majorities in both houses of the legislature slipped away. Weeks dragged by. March turned to April, April to May. The legislature remained in session, but no action was taken. Chances for victory in Republican Delaware receded with each passing day.
Then, most ominous of all, came the danger that some of the already-certified ratifications might be “recalled.” In Ohio, one of the first states to act favorably on the Amendment, petitions had been filed for a statewide referendum in which voters could confirm or reject their legislature’s ratification. A recently adopted article in Ohio’s own state constitution specifically allowed such a referendum. The U.S. Constitution, on the other hand, is equally specific in not providing for recall referendums in its straightforward requirement for amendment ratification by state legislatures, and the validity of the Ohio referendum provision was being contested in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the Antis, reveling in the legal havoc being created, were busily circulating petitions for similar post-ratification referendums in Missouri, Nebraska, Maine, and Massachusetts, with more to come. The ratification campaign had not just stalled. It was threatening to shift into reverse.
June 2, 1920, was the day of decision in Delaware’s legislature. Ratification lost. Worried Republicans wondered if their party would be blamed nationally for the debacle. They didn’t have long to wonder. The following week, when the Republican National Convention of 1920 opened in the Coliseum in Chicago—a convention from whose “smoke-filled rooms” Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio would emerge as nominee for President—a long line of women, dressed in white and wearing the suffragists’ emblematic yellow sashes, marched on the Coliseum. They carried the purple, white, and gold tricolor of the Woman’s Party, and their banners read: REPUBLICANS, WE ARE HERE. WHERE ISTHE 36TH STATE ?
The convention hastily inserted a plank in their platform expressing the “earnest hope that Republican legislatures in States which have not yet acted upon the Suffrage Amendment will ratify.…” In the Coliseum, the suffragists hung a banner reading: WE DO NOT WANT PLANKS. WE DEMAND THE SGTH STATE . Republican leaders besieged the anti-ratificationist Republican governors of Vermont and Connecticut with pleas to relent and call special sessions. Suffragists in both states beseeched with letters, telegrams, delegations. This massive pressure brought continued massive resistance. Governor Percival W. Clement of Vermont announced after due reflection that he “did not care to make a decision at once.” Governor Marcus A. Holcomb of Connecticut declared that no one had proved to him “the existence of a ‘special emergency,’ ” and he must decline.
Fortunately, however, June 2 had also been a day of decision in the U.S. Supreme Court. And there, ratification had been rescued from uncertain limbo. The Court’s ruling on the Ohio referendum case declared flatly, “The Federal Constitution, and not the constitutions of the several States, controls the method by which the U.S. Constitution may be amended.” There would be no post-ratification referendums to threaten the gains already made.
“Of course you’ve heard the good news that Tennessee may the ‘perfect 36.’ Wouldn’t it be glorious to have the 36th state come from way down here in anti-suffrage country where the mossbacks stay?”
So began the letter to NAWSA headquarters in New York, postmarked Nashville, dated June 21, 1920, and signed by Catherine Tatey Kenny, Chairman of Ratification, Tennessee League of Women Voters. A natural choice for the key post of state ratification chairman, Mrs. Kenny was a cheerful, motherly looking woman who, in serving the cause, had done everything from throwing out the first ball at the Nashville baseball park one spring day, when players adorned their uniforms with sashes of suffrage yellow and played a Suffrage Day game, to traveling across the state making speeches from the rear platform of a train known as the “Tennessee Suffrage Special.” (On that trip, when a heckler kept suggesting that the ladies all go home because, in the watchword of the era, “Home is woman’s sphere,” Mrs. Kenny had silenced him with a simple proclamation: “Woman’s sphere is the world.”)
Now, with Tennessee moving into the ratification spotlight, Catherine Kenny held center stage. She loved every minute of it. She had opened a Ratification Headquarters for her committee at the famous old Maxwell House, long a favorite hangout for state politicians, and she explained in her letter to NAWSA headquarters what she saw as the main obstacle: Tennessee’s Governor Roberts, a mild-mannered, deliberate teacher-turned-lawyer whose principal advisers were hopelessly split on the question of ratification, whose main interest was tax reform, and whose main worry was renomination—which normally in Democratic Tennessee was tantamount to re-election. “He is afraid to call the session [Mrs. Kenny wrote] because he can’t afford to take time off from his campaign before the primary August 5th.
“Now here is our hope: In Tennessee we all swear by Woodrow Wilson, exhausting every adjective in our voluminous Southern vocabulary to praise and glorify his every word and deed.…Yesterday I conceived the idea of having the President wire Governor Roberts a loving message telling him to deliver the 36th state for the Democrats. I’ve sent a telegram to the President tonight signed by our entire State Executive Board League of Women Voters (32 names). If you know any way in the world to get that telegram by Mr. Tumulty to the President, for the love of Mike help…”
Someone at NAWSA evidently did know how to circumvent (or wheedle) Joe Tumulty, White House watchdog for the now-ailing President, exhausted by his vain efforts to sell Americans on membership in the League of Nations. And Wilson, who hoped women voters would favor the League, found it politic to pay heed. On June 23,1920, just hours after Mrs. Kenny’s letter arrived in New York, the Department of Justice in Washington was asked by President Wilson to render an opinion concerning application of the Supreme Court’s Ohio referendum decision to the constitution of Tennessee. Mrs. Kenny’s lawyer friends had contended that the provision postponing legislative action on a federal amendment until after the state’s next election made that election itself a referendum in everything but name. The U.S. assistant attorney general, John L. Frierson, himself a Tennessean, agreed. His instant opinion, delivered that afternoon on behalf of the Justice Department, declared, “If the people of a State through their Constitution can delay action on an amendment until after an election, there is no reason why they cannot delay it until after two elections or five elections … thus practically nullifying the article of the Federal Constitution providing for amendment.”
Late that same day, June 23, 1920, Woodrow Wilson telegraphed Governor Roberts just the sort of “loving message” Mrs. Kenny had envisioned: “It would be a real service to the party and to the nation if it is possible for you, under the peculiar provision of your State Constitution, having in mind the recent decision of the Supreme Court in the Ohio case, to call a special session of the Legislature of Tennessee to consider the Suffrage Amendment. Allow me to urge this most earnestly.”
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.
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.…”
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.
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.…”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
Governor Roberts, meanwhile, was proving to be the most committed ratificationist of all. He had named the state superintendent of public instruction, Albert Williams, as his legislative liaison, and opened up an unofficial caucus room in the State Capitol for legislators favoring the resolution. Early Sunday morning, August 8, Albert Williams and several of the governor’s aids met there to analyze the latest information on the leanings of the ninety-nine House members and the thirty-three state senators. House Speaker Seth Walker, the governor’s trusted political ally, had amiably agreed the previous week to give the resolution of ratification added impetus by introducing it in the House himself, and Williams had asked him to come that morning and help cross-check the various poll results.
It was midmorning before Seth Walker appeared. He entered the caucus room and told the governor’s men that he had undergone a change of conviction. He warned them that Governor Roberts was courting political disaster unless he could be persuaded by his friends to oppose ratification. Then he left. For Albert Williams and the others, the question was: How many pledged votes had walked out the door with Seth Walker?
On that Sunday afternoon, local socialites Mr. and Mrs. George Washington entertained Anti dignitaries with a garden party at their Cedar Hill country home, “Washington Hall,” and Miss Josephine Pearson later noted that “Some 40-odd cars drove out for this day’s gathering from the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville.”
That night, in Mrs. Catt’s suite at the Hermitage, suffrage leaders compared session-eve notes. The Senate was safe, with votes to spare, even after a couple of men who had been tabbed as “bribable” were discounted. The real battle would be in the House. Sixty-two of the ninety-nine House members had pledged for ratification. That was twelve votes more than the fifty-vote constitutional majority required for passage. But no one felt secure: There were waverings in several counties. The representative from rural Meigs County had signed up for ratification back in June in Mrs. Kenny’s poll with the assurance that, “Anything you League of Women Voters want of me, command me. I will vote for women every time I have a chance till the Roll is called up Yonder.” He had become the first confirmed dropout, and was now working openly for the Antis. And then there was this devastating news of the perfidy of Seth Walker.…
The meeting broke up in the early morning hours and, in an agony of suspense, the suffragists went to bed, but not to sleep.
There could be no turning back. Armageddon was at hand.
D ay One, Capitol Hill, Monday, August 9,1920: Tennessee legislature convenes at noon in extra session. Galleries packed with ladies wearing red or yellow roses. Governor’s message urging ratification “injustice to the womanhood of America” is read. Legislature adjourns for the day .
On this first day, everyone was biding time. Back at the Hermitage (now known as the “third house”), Republican legislators held an afternoon caucus, heard ex-Governor Hooper urge them to vote for ratification, and agreed to vote their consciences. At a two-hour conference in Governor Roberts’ offices at the Capitol, agreement was reached that all ratification committees would unite under a steering committee headed by Charl Ormond Williams, and, for strategic and public relations reasons, only Tennessee women would lobby on Capitol Hill.
Day Two, Capitol Hill, Tuesday, August 10, 1920: Legislature convenes in morning. Capitol corridors are decked with yellow bunting. Joint resolution of ratification is introduced in Senate by Presiding Officer Andrew L. Todd, and in House by entire Shelby delegation. Referred to Committees on Constitutional Amendments. On motions by Antis in each house, joint public hearing is set for night of August 12. Both houses adjourn for day.
Suspicion that the Antis were using a strategy of delay made the Suffs nervous. Sue Shelton White and Betty Gram had discovered a watermelon stand on the outskirts of Nashville, and regular forays there by streetcar began. Others, more daring, made their way to Mrs. Isaac Reese’s room at the Hermitage; Mrs. Reese, a Memphis suffragist who was both aristocratic and flamboyant, had been known to smoke an occasional cigar, and her room became the safe territory for suffragists wanting a quick cigarette.
Day Three, Capitol Hill, Wednesday, August 11, 1920: Resolution by Antis in House to delay consideration of ratification until “the will of the people can be heard” in county conventions is tabled by a vote of fifty to thirty-seven. No other action.
In this first test of strength, the Suffs had won. Nevertheless, since they could not count on any of the absent or abstaining legislators to put the pro-ratification count above that bare constitutional majority of fifty in future tallies, they did not have a single vote to spare. They must now be prepared to ride herd on their pledged members every hour of every day, watching, guarding, personally escorting. Word was sent out, reserves called in, assignments made. From this day on, bewildered Tennessee legislators would be overwhelmed by the flattering attentions of gracious Tennessee suffragists.
Meanwhile, there was news and gossip to share, including another Lon McFarland story. Anne Dallas Dudley had been solicitously straightening the uncommitted senator’s black string tie while explaining why his vote for ratification was needed. Without a word, Senator McFarland had whipped out his penknife, cut himself free, and walked away, leaving Mrs. Dudley standing, tie in hand, in the Capitol corridor. Another story was that Albert Williams, the governor’s liaison man, had hired a private detective to check up on reported bribe offers.
D ay Four, Capitol Hill, Thursday, August 12, 1920: Resolution sponsored by Antis declaring any action by the House for or against ratification would “violate the spirit” of state constitution is tabled, again by vote of fifty to thirty-seven. Both houses adjourn until evening’s joint committee hearing .
The biggest crowd ever assembled in the Capitol attended the suffrage hearing that night in the hall of the House of Representatives. Among those speaking for the Suffs—all Tennesseans—were Senator McKellar, Charl Ormond Williams, Anne Dallas Dudley. The Antis, predictably, led off with Charlotte Rowe, followed by a congressman, two judges, and the big (and, for the suffragists, ominous) surprise. It came in the person of old Major E. B. Stahlman, the German-born newspaper publisher who, starting as an immigrant railroad construction worker, had risen through the ranks to become vice president of the L & N Railroad before he quit and bought the Nashville Banner . When Stahlman, one-time member of the Men’s Ratification Committee, rose and told the crowd that he (and his newspaper) were now unalterably opposed to ratification, the Anti ladies waved red roses and the Suffs felt like weeping. To counteract this shock, the Senate committee gallantly went into emergency session on the spot, right after the hearing, and voted, eight to two, to report the Nineteenth Amendment favorably in the State Senate the very next day.
Day Five, Capitol Hill, Friday, August 13, 1920: State Senate, after three hours of debate, passes resolution of ratification with twenty-five ayes, four nays, two not voting. Resolution is referred to the House. Both houses adjourn until Monday.
When Tennessee suffragists hurried down to the Hermitage where Mrs. Catt, Mrs. Upton, and other national leaders banished from Capitol Hill were waiting for news, they scarcely mentioned the unexpectedly wide margin of victory. They were still spluttering over the McMinn County senator H. M. Candler’s remarks, paradigmatic of every antisuffrage oration ever made. Candler had railed against “petticoat government,” against “low-neck, high-skirt” suffragists who “knew not what it was to go down in the shade of the valley and bring forth children,” (“I’ve got six children!” an indignant, yellow-sashed, Nashville matron had interrupted from the gallery), and against “an old woman down here at the Hermitage Hotel, whose name is Catt—I think her husband’s name is Tom—trying to dictate to Tennessee’s lawmakers.” The women finally calmed down long enough to tell of another senator, card-indexed as an Anti, who had explained why he was voting for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment—to get back at the North for the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. And—oh, yes—still wearing his talisman rose, noncommittal to the end, Senator Lon McFarland was one of the two abstainers.
The weekend had brought new perils. Until the House reconvened on Monday, not a single ratification-inclined member could be permitted time to sneak home, fall ill, or turncoat. In a frenzy of solicitude, the Suffs invited their assigned legislators to go for long automobile drives in the country, to take in a movie ( Old Wives for New was showing at the Crescent), or to have dinner at the club. (One of them was amazed to find himself at Belle Meade Country Club as the guest of a Mrs. Stahlman, the Banner publisher’s suffragist daughter-in-law.) Some legislators, catching the spirit, themselves volunteered to spend time in the company of various pretty, young suffragists. But all the while, waiting with blandishments back at the Hermitage, were the Antis of eighth floor and mezzanine. “Beware! Men of the South! Heed not the song of the suffrage siren!” Thus began one of the pamphlets Miss Pearson and her helpers were now distributing. To drive the point home, she and one of her lieutenants posed for photographs, just outside anti-ratification headquarters, with a weathered Confederate veteran holding the Stars and Bars.
Tension was not confined to Nashville. From Washington, Woodrow Wilson wired to remind Seth Walker that he favored ratification. Prom Ohio, Governor Cox kept calling Governor Roberts to emphasize that he was for ratification. And Senator Harding had again announced that he was pro-ratification, but Harding also had written, in a letter to a Republican Anti which was now being widely circulated, that he could understand how an oath-taking Tennessee legislator with “a very conscientious belief that there is a constitutional inhibition” mieht vote aeainst ratification.
Meanwhile the key post of House floor leader for ratification was filled in a way satisfactory to the suffragists. Joe Hanover, a Memphis bachelor and ardent convert to the cause, was the choice, and he told a Commercial Appeal reporter he was confident the Amendment would be ratified. When asked if he feared vote trading, Joe had replied, “I am prepared for that.”
Indeed he was. Joe had even found an effective way to handle the bribery menace which the Suffs, because of high principles and low cash reserves, were unable to answer in kind. As a young and accommodating lawyer, Joe often had been consulted by older legislators of lesser education who needed help in preparing bills they wanted to introduce in the House. Mostly out of friendship for Joe, one such representative, an old fiddle-playing farmer from the hills, had been voting faithfully with the ratificationists in this special session and his vote was counted safe. But early this Sunday morning he showed up at Joe’s door, bleary eyed but happy, to announce, “Sorry, Joe, but I’m going to have to leave you suffrage boys. The Antis j ust paid me three hundred dollars.” Joe did not even pause in his unresearched reply: “Well, you’re a pretty cheap vote—I hear they’re paying the others a thousand.”
“Why, those dirty crooks!” cried the old farmer. He had become, on the instant, a true believer in the wickedness of the Antis, and would vote accordingly.
D ay Six, Capitol Hill, Monday, August 16, 1920: House postpones action, awaiting report of its Committee on Constitutional Amendments scheduled to meet in night executive session .
Lobbyists were now working boldly, feverishly, offering political offices, business loans, lucrative jobs; these failing, they threatened loss of job, foreclosure on loans, withdrawal of political favors. Polls, checked and rechecked daily, had become useless; no one knew where anyone stood. There was, for instance, Harry Burn, the representative from McMinn County, who at twenty-four was Tennessee’s youngest legislator. His lapel was regularly decorated with a red rose, but he had told Anita Pollitzer, “My vote will never hurt you.” Seth Walker was wielding his power as Speaker to bring his legislative friends, mostly “Roberts men,” to his side, but they were under equal pressure from Capitol Hill to keep faith with the governor, and several party regulars, like Banks Turner of Gibson County, seemed torn by conflicting loyalties. Neither Suffs nor Antis were sure enough of their votes at this point to hazard a showdown. Even the House committee’s night executive session turned out to be hairbreadth. A deadlock was averted only after two absent members, both pledged for ratification, were rounded up by alert suffragists and marched into the meeting to make the vote ten to eight to report the Amendment favorably in the House the next day. By next day those two men had jumped the fence and come out for the Antis.
Day Seven, Capitol Hill, Tuesday, August 17,1920: Motion that the House concur in Senate ‘s adoption of Senate Joint Resolution Number 1, ratifying the proposed Nineteenth Amendment, is offered by Representative T. K. Riddick. Debate cut off in midafternoon by Speaker Walker ‘s motion to adjourn until next morning. Motion carried, fifty-two to forty-four.
What did that fifty-two to forty-four vote mean? Did the Antis now control the House? If so, why hadn’t they called for a vote on the resolution itself? Could Suff forces survive another night of suspense? Suffragists decided to set up all-night patrols of hotel corridors and of Union Station to forestall unwarranted departures or disappearances. Ratificationists were being summoned home by fake messages telling of illness in the family. Rumors of kidnapings, actual or threatened, abounded. Joe Hanover had been jostled in the elevator, and loudly denounced as a “Bolshevist” in the Hermitage lobby. Sultry-voiced females, purporting to be suffragists, were telephoning his room to invite him to compromising midnight trysts; anonymous male voices were telephoning threats on his life. Word of this had reached Governor Roberts and late that afternoon Hanover was called to the governor’s offices. There he was introduced to a tall, handsome captain of the Nashville police force, Paul Bush, now reassigned, courtesy of the state of Tennessee, as Joe Hanover’s bodyguard, to monitor his phone calls, check his mail, and occupy a connecting room at the Hermitage. Later that same night, the governor himself was threatened. Representatives of a group of newspapers called on him to warn that they would vigorously support his Republican opponent and defeat him in the November election—if “his men” did not straighten out and vote right in the legislature’s balloting next day.
“There is one more thing we can do—only one,” said Carrie Chapman Catt as the suffragists’ strategy meeting broke up that night. “We can pray.”
Day Eight, Capitol Hill, Wednesday, August 18,1920:
The crowds began to gather early. Suffragists showed up in white dresses with yellow sashes—their marching clothes. Antis came, many responding to a big ad in that morning’s Tennessean , appealing for a show of red-rose strength at the Capitol. A few women factory workers came, wearing red roses and enjoying a day off, both courtesy of their employers. There were young and old, men and women, the curious and the concerned, reporters, politicians, preachers, bartenders, students, grandmothers—all hoping to get into the House galleries, all hoping to see history made that day. They hurried up Capitol Hill, past the equestrian statue of Tennessee’s own President Andrew Jackson and the tomb of Tennessee’s own President James K. Polk. They climbed, ran, and hobbled up the seventy-two steps to the Capitol’s main entrance, traveled down the wide Capitol corridor, then up the grand stairway, their fingers running lightly over the chipped marble of the bullet-scarred balustrade, a relic of the gunfight that had marked the stormy debate over Tennessee’s ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866.
By nine-thirty, the Capitol was jammed and the crowds were spilling out onto the surrounding lawns. Inside the House chamber, yellow banners hung between tall columns, and a yellow sunflower had been lashed to the spread eagle mounting guard above the Speaker’s chair. But as the members began drifting in, Suffs standing in the galleries saw an ominous number of red roses on the floor below. Anita Pollitzer caught a glimpse of red in Harry Burn’s lapel and sadly crossed him off her “hopeful” list. But what she could not see was the turmoil in Harry Burn’s mind, or the letter in his pocket.
The letter had arrived that morning. It was from his mother, Mrs. J. L. Burn of Niota, Tennessee, who believed in woman suffrage, though she never had been an active suffragist. Reading the reports of the special session in the papers, Mrs. Burn had been disappointed to see that her son Harry had taken no stand, even though she understood why. The sentiment against ratification had become fierce in McMinn County, especially since Senator Candler’s “bearcat” of a speech in the Senate, and she knew Harry had been hearing from his constituents. She had decided to write, too: “Dear Son: Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification. Your Mother.”
As he made his way to his desk, Harry Burn was still weighing in his own mind his duty to represent his Anti constituents against his duty to vote his own (and his mother’s) suffragist convictions.
Down on the floor, Dr. J. Frank Griffin arrived—back home from California in time to swell the suffrage vote. A cheer went up from the Suffs when another ratificationist, R. L. Dowlen of Ashland City, just out of the hospital following an operation, was assisted to his desk. That meant—tally sheets were consulted—only three of the ninety-nine House members would be absent. But even when Griffin and Dowlen were included, the Suffs’ poll estimates showed they could count on only forty-seven votes. With ninetysix members present and voting, that was not enough. The Antis would have forty-nine.
Speaker Walker’s gavel pounded at 10:30 A.M. Suffs, Antis, and several dozen lobbyists who were on the floor making last-minute offers and appeals, in flagrant violation of House rules, were moved to the rear of the hall by the sergeant at arms. They took their places behind a railing and stood, tally sheets in hand, pencils poised, ready to check off names as the roll was called on yesterday’s motion to concur in the Senate’s ratification. But debate was the first order of the day. Oration after oration reviewed seventy-two years of familiar arguments until, abruptly, a self-assured Speaker Walker turned over his gavel to Representative William Overton, another staunch Anti, then made his way down to the House floor and asked to be recognized. With melodramatic flourish, Seth Walker was making it known that the Antis, just as suffragists had calculated, had at least fortynine sure votes, a majority of those present and voting.
“The hour has come,” Walker announced. “The battle has been fought and won, and I move you, Mr. Speaker, that the motion to concur in the Senate action go where it belongs—to the table.” And now his strategy was clear. As double insurance, Walker was moving to kill the Amendment by tabling it. Any still uneasy fence sitters could more easily justify a temporizing vote to table than an outright vote against.
Antis chorused “Second the motion.” Suffragists clamored for recognition. Mr. Overton ordered the roll call to begin. There were no surprises. Harry Burn’s name came early in the roll; he voted in favor of tabling. Other members answered according to expectations until the name Banks Turner was called. Earlier that morning, Turner had been in Governor Roberts’ office just down the hall, listening to last-minute long-distance pleading from his party’s presidential nominee, Governor Cox. And now, irresolute still, he did not answer. The roll call went on, but before the final vote could be announced—most had already added up their own totals at forty-eight to forty-seven in favor of tabling—Turner rose. “I wish to be recorded as against the motion to table.” Suffragists gasped in joy. On a tie vote, forty-eight to forty-eight, the motion was defeated. The Nineteenth Amendment was still alive in Tennessee.
Seth Walker, unwilling to accept his good friend’s decision as final, demanded a recount. He made his way to Banks Turner’s desk, sat down, and put his arm around Turner’s shoulder. But when Turner’s name was called again, he threw off Walker’s arm and rose. Again he voted “Nay.” The roll call was finished. So was the motion to table. The suffragists cheered.
But not for long. The motion to table had failed on a tie vote. It seemed certain that the original motion to concur in the Senate’s ratification would do likewise. Realizing this, Seth Walker immediately called for a vote on the original motion. Once more the agony of the roll call began. And this was the vote that counted. Even if Banks Turner stuck with them, the ratificationists must still find one more vote to have a majority of forty-nine.
An east Tennessee mountaineer named Anderson was first on the list. He had been instructed by suffrage leaders to shout his answer, and his “Aye” came loud and clear. Another “Aye” followed. Then came four “Nays,” two of them from the faithless Davidson County delegation. Harry Burn’s name was seventh on the roll call, and his “Aye” came so quickly, so unexpectedly, that many present did not catch it. Others thought perhaps the young lawmaker had become confused, made a mistake. Then, as the meaning of what they had heard sank in, a murmurous wave of amazement swept the House chamber. Had it happened? Had young Harry Burn cast the last deciding vote, the vote that would enfranchise one-half the adult population of the United States? The answer could not be certain until this third roll call of the day ended—until the strength of Banks Turner’s new-found suffragist faith was tested one more time. In breathless silence, even their waving fans motionless in the heavy, hot air of the galleries, the crowd waited for the clerk to get to the T ’s. This time Banks Turner fairly shouted his “Aye!”
The resolution was carried, forty-nine to forty-seven. But even before the clerk could announce the result, a white-faced Seth Walker was on his feet to play out one last, desperate but well-worn parliamentary maneuver. “I change my vote from ‘Nay’ to ‘Aye,’ and move to reconsider.” If Walker’s vote were recorded with the suffragist maj ority, he might be able to buy time for the Antis somehow to erode that majority. Only a legislator voting on the prevailing side can bring up a motion to reconsider. That member then controls the measure for the next seventy-two hours—in this case, until noon on Saturday, August 21. He alone can call it to a vote, and he can make that call at any moment when be believes he has present and voting the votes to win.
It was not until later that the irony emerged: This change of vote by Seth Walker, made for parliamentary expediency, had given the ratification resolution an unchallengeable constitutional majority—fifty of the total House membership of ninety-nine. Walker unwittingly had cut off one line of legal attack upon the validity of Tennessee’s ratification already being prepared by Anti lawyers. At that moment, however, the uproar in the House chamber had become so great that the clerk’s announcement that the resolution to ratify had carried—by a vote of fifty to forty-six—was never heard.
Pandemonium prevailed. Women were screaming, weeping, singing. They threw their arms about each other and danced, so far as it was possible, in the jam-packed aisles Suffragist legislators tore off their yellow boutonnières and threw them into the air to meet the gentle rain of yellow rose petals floating down from the galleries above.
The jubilation spread to the Capitol corridors, to the Capitol lawns, and the cheers of the pro-ratification multitudes could be clearly heard in the suite at the Hermitage Hotel where Carrie Chapman Catt and Harriet Taylor Upton sat waiting for news.
No one had to tell them. The time had come to celebrate!
What followed, though it seemed important at the time, was mostly anticlimax—or, as many claimed, comic opera. Now, predictably, it was the Antis who charged bribery. There were speculations, rumors, accusations: Joe Hanover had bribed Harry Burn; the governor’s secretary had gotten to Harry Burn; Mrs. Leslie Warner had said in the presence of Harry Burn that she would pay ten thousand dollars for just one more vote for ratification. One elaborate and convoluted theory even had Seth Walker publicly playing the role of an Anti for reasons best known to himself, while remaining at heart a true ratificationist who knew exactly what he was doing when he changed his vote to give the suffragists their unbudgeable constitutional majority. But this theory never gained much currency, even in later years when the L & N Railroad named Seth Walker their legal counsel in Nashville.
In any case, young Harry Burn put himself forever above suspicion or censure when he rose in the House chamber the day after the vote to explain his decision to change sides: “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”
The drama played itself out. In order to “build fires” under the Suffs’ legislators, the Antis held mass rallies (“To Save the South!”) all over Tennessee during the next few days. Suffragist legislators were tested with new and unalloyed temptations and threats. But no weak brethren turned up among the “Sterling 49.” None fell by the wayside drunk or disabled. They all showed up in the House, ready to vote full force against any reconsideration of ratification on Saturday morning, August 21, when Seth Walker’s control of the motion ran out.
They found only nine Antis in attendance that morning. The others had skipped town. In one of the more bizarre filibusters on record, thirty-eight Tennessee lawmakers—Antis called them the Red Rose Brigade—had stolen away in little groups of two or three in the middle of the previous night, and taken the train over the state line to Decatur, Alabama, where they were hiding out rather publicly in the lobby of the local hotel. But there were not enough of them to achieve their aim: to prevent the assembling of a quorum in the Tennessee legislature, and thus prevent action on reconsideration.
The “Sterling 49” proceeded joyfully to do business without them. (The House’s anti-suffrage chaplain added to their merriment when he opened the morning’s session with a prayer that “God’s richest blessing be granted to our absent ones.”) The pending motion to reconsider was called up, voted down, and the ratified Amendment was returned to the Senate. From there it went to the governor for certification, to be followed by delivery to Washington.
On Tuesday, August 24, Governor Roberts signed, sealed, and sent off by special delivery registered mail to Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby the certificate of Tennessee’s ratification. That same day, Mrs. Catt, Mrs. Upton, and Miss Charl Ormond Williams boarded the train to Washington, hoping to be on hand for ceremonies when the secretary issued his proclamation—the final, formal step in the seventy-two-year-long suffrage journey. But when they arrived, early on the morning of August 26, 1920, it was all over. The certificate had preceded them by a few hours, and Secretary Colby, to preclude any further last-ditch legal obstructionism by the Antis, had issued his proclamation on the instant, before breakfast. While most of the country was in bed, asleep or otherwise occupied, votes for women had become the law of the land.