Tennessee might not be the first state that comes to mind when looking back on how women in the United States gained the right to vote.
However, local storyteller Judy Baker set out to change that as she spoke at Cleveland State Community College on Tuesday night. She said Tennessee played a crucial role in ensuring both men and women could cast their votes in political elections.
A member of the Cleveland Storytelling Guild who had spent time researching the subject, Baker explained how in 1920 the efforts of Tennessee women to lobby the state Legislature tipped the scales in favor of giving women the right to vote.
As slavery began to be abolished in the late 1800s, more and more women decided to campaign for more freedom as well — the freedom to have a say in their government.
However, Baker said arguments which might be deemed “silly” today, like the idea that a woman wanting to vote meant she did not care about keeping house and raising children, stood in the way of getting most men and even some women to see the need for women’s suffrage.
“They [those arguments] proved to be almost insurmountable obstacles,” Baker said.
Attempts to get an amendment which would allow women the right to vote added to the U.S. Constitution failed repeatedly. Even when the women would make headway in their efforts to campaign for the cause, things like the Civil War and World War I took the country’s attention away from the issue.
In 1918, women began to protest in Washington, D.C., doing “unladylike” things like burning effigies of political figures to try to get their point across. Meanwhile, Baker said other women nationwide took more “gentle” approaches to protesting.
While American men had been involved in the wars, women had taken over some of the jobs previously held only by men. Baker said it was likely because of the work women had done that President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to pass the 19th Amendment, which would give women the right to vote.
Congress finally passed it, but three quarters of the country’s then 48 states needed to ratify it before it would become the law of the land. Thirty-six state legislatures needed to ratify the proposed amendment, and Tennessee was the crucial 36th state.
But getting to that point was a difficult journey for the women in Tennessee who were lobbying for the right to vote.
Long, hot summer journeys to visit state legislators culminated at the Hermitage Hotel in what is known today as the “War of the Roses.” Those who were either for or against the vote signaled their support for their side by wearing roses. Those who were for women’s suffrage wore yellow roses; those who were against wore red ones.
People from both sides vigorously tried to sway the votes of the state senators and representatives staying at the hotel for a special General Assembly session in Nashville in August 1920. Baker said at one point a woman allegedly grabbed the necktie of a state legislator and held on, forcing him to hear her plea for his vote. He pulled a knife out of his pocket and cut off his tie to get free.
Once the Legislature was in session, Baker said “stalling tactics” abounded over the days the state considered the measure. The state Senate passed the measure, but the House continued to have votes that ended in 50-50 percent ties.
State Rep. Harry T. Burn of Niota provided the swing vote in favor of women’s suffrage at the last minute after having been against. He gave several reasons for his change of heart, but he allegedly cited a letter from his mother asking him to vote in favor of the amendment with helping change his mind.
On Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee voted to give women the right to vote.
Other states eventually followed, but the country already had the state votes it needed for women to be able to vote, because women from Tennessee and other states had fought for the right.
“Let’s remember what it took,” Baker said.
She said men and women living today have no excuse for not voting and no excuse for not being informed voters. She encouraged people in the audience to take advantage of the opportunities they have to shape their country’s national, state and local governments.
“The easiest thing you can do as a citizen is to vote,” said Baker.