19th Amendment Centennial Brings Opportunities for Celebration, Education

August 18, 2020

One hundred years ago, on August 18, 1920, Tennessee legislators voted to ratify the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, securing a historic advancement for the rights of women. This vote in favor of extending the franchise to women was decisive, as Tennessee was the 36th state to ratify, and at least 36 states had to vote in favor of the amendment for it to become part of the Constitution.

A century later that milestone is being recognized and celebrated in a number of ways in Tennessee. While the covid-19 pandemic has interrupted some events scheduled to commemorate the anniversary, others have moved forward, including a variety of online lectures and forums dedicated to discussing the history of women’s suffrage.

In many cases, attorneys and judges have been at the forefront of these commemorations. For instance, the Nashville Bar Association recently held an online CLE, “100 Years of Woman Suffrage: Honoring the Past, Looking to the Future,” that featured judges, attorneys, and elected officials from Tennessee and elsewhere.

Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Frank G. Clement, Jr., provided opening and closing remarks at the event, while former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice and current United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Senior Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey participated in a discussion, “Honoring the History of Suffrage.” A keynote address was given by North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls.

Judge Daughtrey helped to put the achievement of the 19th Amendment in context, discussing the extent to which women were second-class citizens under the law for a substantial portion of the country’s history.

“Marriage makes two people into one, and it turns out the one was the husband and not the wife,” she said. “The husband literally had custody of his wife’s person and her property. He had exclusive control and guardianship of any children, and you have to remember that this means if a woman decided for her safety or her happiness that she needed to leave her marital home she had to leave the children behind. The husband had the absolute right to any money she earned. It really was a situation where she almost had no existence at all beyond the house.”

Women’s rights activists pushed for changes to these oppressive laws during the 19th century and joined together to draw attention to injustice at the Seneca Falls Convention and countless other gatherings. Still, progress came slowly. As Judge Daughtrey pointed out, 72 years elapsed between Seneca Falls and the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

 “It turns out that when ratification was finally achieved there was only one person still alive who had been at Seneca Falls,” she said.

Event participants also noted the role that African American women played in pushing for the right to vote.  Linda T. Wynn, the assistant director for state programs with the Tennessee Historical Commission and a history and political science lecturer at Fisk University, talked about the ways in which African American women partnered with white women to advocate for the right to vote.

Wynn referred to this partnership as a “rare alliance” in the segregated Nashville of the time. It was also, as Wynn said, something of a quid pro quo. African American community leaders like Dr. Mattie Coleman and Frankie Pierce committed to organizational support for the amendment after gaining assurances that white leaders would back the creation of a vocational school for girls and a state department of child welfare. In this way, they were being realistic about which changes the Amendment would bring and which it would not.

“Even though women got the right to vote in 1920 we have to remember that for the most part it would take until 1965 until African Americans could vote” in the South, Wynn said. That was the year that the Voting Rights Act was passed.

Another CLE will be presented by the Tennessee Bar Association on Aug. 18 at noon CDT. That CLE will feature Elaine Weiss, author of The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. Weiss’ talk is titled “Tennessee's Role in Women's Suffrage and the 19th Amendment.” A link to that event can be found here: https://cle.tba.org/catalog/course/5205

The Nashville Public Library is at the center of some of the city’s commemorations. At 11:30 a.m. CDT on Aug. 18, the Library will host a virtual grand opening for Votes for Women, a permanent exhibit at the Main Library. That opening will be hosted by musician and songwriter Rosanne Cash: https://library.nashville.org/research/votes-for-women

At noon CDT viewers of the live-stream are invited to ring bells in recognition of the historic ratification of the 19th Amendment. This is the culmination of the Library’s “I Ring the Bell” campaign, which kicked off in July. The story behind the campaign is that in 1920 when the amendment was ratified, cities across the country rang bells in celebration. Nashville, however, did not participate. The “I Ring the Bell” campaign invited people to create selfie videos of themselves ringing bells and explaining why they were doing so.

Also at noon CDT, the Tennessee State Museum is partnering with Nashville Public Television and the Nashville Public Library to host an online screening of the documentary “By One Vote: Woman Suffrage in the South,” narrated by Rosanne Cash. A discussion will follow the screening. A link to the screening can be found here: https://ovee.itvs.org/screenings/jyxmh

Also following the screening at 2:30 CDT, the State Museum will unfurl a banner replica of the 36-star ratification flag of the National Woman’s Party. This will take place on the south side of the Tennessee State Museum building, facing the State Capitol and the Bicentennial Mall.

For those wanting to learn more about the significance of Aug. 18, 2020, the Museum will be hosting a presentation, “Why August 18, 1920 Still Matters,” as part of its popular Lunch and Learn series. That discussion will take place on Aug. 19 at noon CDT and will feature Davidson County Historian Dr. Carole Bucy. More information about this event can be found here: https://tnmuseum.org/calendar-of-events/event/2005612

The centennial of the 19th Amendment was also the subject of a State Museum lunch presentation on Aug. 13, viewable here. In that presentation, Miranda Fraley-Rhodes, curator of the Museum’s exhibition “Ratified! Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote,” discussed the history of the suffragist movement, including how it grew out of the abolitionist movement. Fraley Rhodes also talked about what the 19th Amendment did and did not change for women. For instance, first generation Asian American women and Native American women still did not gain the right to vote after ratification, while African American women faced obstacles like poll taxes, literacy tests, and voter intimidation.

The “Ratified!” exhibition will open at the Tennessee State Museum on July 31 and run through March 28, 2021.

The Tennessee House of Representatives is marking the occasion of the Centennial by reenacting the historic Aug. 18, 1920 vote to ratify the 19th Amendment by reenacting that vote on the House floor. “Our Century! Living Tennessee’s History of the Ratification” will be live-streamed from the State Capitol starting at 9:30 a.m. CDT. The event is viewable here: https://tnwoman100.com/our-century-living-tennessees-history-of-the-ratification/

Sadly, one of the largest and most anticipated events commemorating the 19th Amendment was recently canceled due to covid-19. The National Association of Women Judges’ 42nd annual conference was set for October in Nashville and was going to feature a number of sessions dedicated to discussion of the 19th Amendment. The event will be rescheduled in Nashville for 2021.

Administrative Office of the Courts Director Deborah Taylor Tate joined those celebrating the Centennial by ringing a bell outside the Tennessee Supreme Court Building