For the December 2015 Historic Issue of Nashville Lifestyles Magazine, Chick History President/CEO Rebecca Price contributed a feature article on the incredible story of the Tennessee Suffragists who fought for women’s right to vote. The article made their Best of 2015 List. Here is the full reprint of that article, or you can read it online.
Song of the Suffrage Siren
The Tennessee Women Who Bribed, Backstabbed, and Battled for the Ratification of the 19th Amendment.
This year, voters elected Megan Barry as Nashville’s first female mayor. Considering that American women were once not even allowed to vote, much less run for public office, her victory is no small feat. Ninety-five years ago, Nashville was the site of another victory in the ongoing battle for female inclusion in our country’s democratic process. In 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, giving all American women the right to vote—and it came to be thanks to countless Tennessee women who fought and battled to secure ratification.
To memorialize this moment in American history, the nonprofit Tennessee Suffrage Monument has commissioned a sculpture by Alan LeQuire that will honor five of the women involved in that historical Nashville moment: Carrie Chapman Catt, Anne Dallas Dudley, Abby Crawford Milton, Sue Shelton White, and J. Frankie Pierce. Though it won’t be erected until 2016, the story behind the statue and the women it memorializes is essential to understanding where we are today.
Clash of the Titans
It was the summer of 1920. Movies were silent, and America was dry under Prohibition. Veterans of the Civil War were still alive. Less than a half a mile from Tennessee’s state capitol, Nashville’s first million-dollar hotel was marking its tenth year. Mixing both classical and French Renaissance styles, The Hermitage Hotel was one of the South’s most elegant hotels and a testament to refined and cultured living. Over the years, it hosted world leaders, presidents, and dignitaries. National associations held their annual meetings there, and it was regularly the host of grand society events. If you wanted to see and be seen, you stayed at The Hermitage.
That summer, record-breaking heat stifled the city—but it didn’t stop the momentum from building around a major historical event. Thirty-five states had voted to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and only one more was needed to secure women’s suffrage. All eyes were on Nashville.
The political armies that were poised to help pass—or thwart—the amendment descended on Nashville that summer. Governor Albert H. Roberts called a special session for August and had the state legislators return to town. National leaders, politicians, suffrage and anti-suffrage factions, and high society made camp in the city and prepared for one of the dirtiest political fights in American history. But not all of the fighting took place up on the hill. In newspaper headlines and behind the scenes, the finest women of the South were waging a volatile and risky war on one another. There was bribery, illegal alcohol, public slandering, spying, wiretapping—and it all went down at The Hermitage.
Anti-suffrage elements believed the established American political machine would crumble if women won the vote. Special interest groups—the whiskey ring, the railroad barons, and the manufacturers’ lobby—felt they would lose their all-powerful control over male-dominated politics. For many in the South, it would be the final nail in the coffin for the “Southern way of life.” Plus, Southern aristocracy and power would have no leg left on which to stand if black women could vote.
The Power Players
Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, arrived from New York in late July. Planning on staying only a couple of days, she settled into suite 309 at The Hermitage, giving her a direct view of the capitol. Little did she know that her room would become the headquarters for all pro-suffrage activities and that she would be there until the bitter end. Handpicked and groomed by the grandmother of the women’s rights movement, Susan B. Anthony, Catt was a 33-year veteran of the war for women’s suffrage. If the movement used U.S. Army rankings, Catt would have been a five-star general. At 61, she was one of the most famous women of the time—and her arrival in Nashville did not go unnoticed.
The day Catt checked in, a telegram was sent to another powerhouse, 52-year-old Josephine Anderson Pearson, head of the Tennessee Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Pearson immediately set off for Nashville from her Monteagle home. A single woman who earned a modest living through teaching, she had led anti-suffrage efforts in Tennessee for half a decade. She had become accustomed to entertaining and socializing with wealthy and elite Southern families, lobbying to keep women in the home and out of the voting booth. Upon arriving at The Hermitage, Pearson asked for Catt’s whereabouts and requested the cheapest room in the hotel. Soon, though, national anti-suffrage reinforcement arrived and moved her to suite 708, a larger room four stories above Catt’s.
Pearson’s first order of business was setting into motion a grand anti-suffrage public relations campaign. She lined up a who’s who of anti-suffrage figures, including members of several elite Southern families who traced their lineage to the founding fathers as well as national leaders and homegrown heroes of the anti-ratification movement. Next, she secured the hotel’s mezzanine as the official headquarters for the anti-ratification troops and decorated it from floor to ceiling in anti-suffrage propaganda and red roses. She included an exhibit displaying research by various associations on why women didn’t need the vote.
The Hermitage became ground zero for the ratification fight, a hive of activity as “Suffs” and “Antis” took over the lobby and building. Barely up the entrance stairs, politicians would be flanked on both sides as women approached them holding either a red or yellow rose to pin to their lapels: red for anti-suffrage, yellow for suffrage support. The War of the Roses had begun.
War of the Roses
Both sides jockeyed for attention and extended invitations to receptions and dinners. The Antis thanked anti-suffrage supporters for saving female virtue, while the Suffs championed the chivalry of those in favor of giving women the vote. Promises and compliments from the women were offered freely as factions cajoled, lobbied, and bargained for their respective cause.
Pearson hosted high teas and receptions that received coverage by Nashville society press, who described them as if they were debutante balls or local fundraisers. Seemingly oblivious to the issue at hand, society writers focused on the decorations, menus, and honorable guests. A delegation caravanned in style out to Washington Hall, one of the grandest plantations west of the city, for what was billed as the social event of the season. Dignitaries from as far as Maine hobnobbed with Nashville’s high society, all for the purpose of making sure that women would never be allowed to vote.
But Pearson’s anti-suffrage efforts were not just sweetness and light. Her next order of business was publically slandering Catt every chance she got. Almost daily, Pearson released statements to the press naming Catt as an outside agitator and hypocrite. As if challenging Catt to a duel, she demanded a debate at Ryman Auditorium between Catt and Charlotte Rowe, an anti-suffrage advocate from New York. For the press, Pearson played up Catt’s alleged contributions to The Woman’s Bible, a feminist writing spearheaded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1895 that challenged religious patriarchy.
Everyone was familiar with the best-selling book, and every good Southern Christian female pointed to this “blasphemy” as an example of the evils of suffrage. Pearson kept a copy of The Woman’s Bible on exhibit at The Hermitage headquarters and created a tabloid scandal when the page that allegedly listed Catt’s name as a contributor went missing. She coyly suggested that it had been stolen and Catt was responsible.
Catt refused to take any of Pearson’s bait. This was her 36th state battle for ratification, and she had learned how to navigate local politics. She stuck close to her hotel suite to remain behind the scenes and rarely gave quotes to the press. When she did, it was to praise the work of Tennesseans, insisting that this was their fight, and to state that she would help only if requested. This strategic retreat was a short-lived victory for Pearson and the anti-suffrage side. Soon, it became clear that public advocacy would be left to the women of Tennessee—especially those who were experts in the Southern way of politics.
Two of Tennessee’s most instrumental and influential pro-ratification weapons were Anne Dallas Dudley and Abby Crawford Milton. Nashville-born Dudley earned her suffrage stripes by founding the Nashville Equal Suffrage League in 1911 and working her way up the ranks to third vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Milton, meanwhile, came from a prominent political family in Georgia and married Chattanooga newspaperman George Milton. She earned a law degree in Chattanooga and immediately began working on the issue of woman suffrage, securing the local vote for the women of Lookout Mountain in 1917. She was the last president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage League and the first president of the Tennessee League of Women Voters.
More importantly, though, Dudley and Milton represented the anti-suffrage movement’s worst fear: They were educated, wealthy, and beautiful mothers who effectively advocated with their charm. Pearson handed out flyers warning all to be aware of these “suffrage sirens.”
The most prominent arguments against suffrage were attacks on motherhood and femininity. Editorials, pamphlets, and political cartoons were distributed widely insisting that true suffragists were old, ugly, bitter women. If they had children at all, they cared nothing for them and would abandon them once they had the vote. A poem published in the newspapers that summer described the only worthy woman as one who possessed “the Motherlook.” This referred to the true happiness that comes only when a woman has children and dedicates her life to care for them and her husband.
On the pro-suffrage side, Dudley and Milton were a deliberate and direct retort. As spokeswomen for the cause, they intentionally presented fashionable, feminine, and virtuous public personas that oozed “honey-tongued charm.” Dudley often led Nashville suffrage parades by walking hand-in-hand with her two children, and sentimental photos of the three were circulated to counter attacks of childless “she-males.” In the summer of 1920, Dudley signed her well-respected name to a public defense of Carrie Chapman Catt against all of Pearson’s slander. And Milton, with her three children and posh group of friends, toured the state in her suffrage-decorated car raising awareness for the cause and giving speeches. She served as Catt’s “Southern pass” that summer, chauffeuring her around the state and introducing her to allies along the way.
As August’s special session grew near, tensions mounted and tactics at The Hermitage grew desperate. Under immense stress, Catt became nervous—she was convinced that her room had been tapped. She even believed anti-suffrage workers had broken in and planted illegal alcohol in an attempt to discredit her. Meanwhile, the entire hotel was overrun. Sixty-year old Memphian Lulu Colyar Reese turned her suite into the secret smoking room for suffragists who needed to get in a quick drag.
In the infamous Jack Daniels Suite, on the eighth floor, illegal booze and bribes flowed between the men with money and the men with votes. The back-deal room for the good ol’ boys didn’t allow women—and yet intoxicated men and legislators roamed the hotel halls. Catt described a 48-hour drinking binge when no sober politician could be found in Nashville. Her attempts to end the illegal activity were rebuffed; this was just the “Tennessee way,” she was told.
The Rebel Rouser
One night, two women decided to eavesdrop on the Jack Daniels Suite to learn who was on the “bribable list.” Hotel staff caught them and ran them off the property via the separate ladies’ side door on Union Avenue. The next day, newspapers labeled the two women—Sue Shelton White of Tennessee and Anita Pollitzer of South Carolina—as spies.
White, a former court reporter from Jackson, was no stranger to criminal activities. In February 1919, the National Woman’s Party (NWP), headed by Alice Paul, organized the most scandalous and shocking event yet in the suffrage battle. After picketing the White House for two years, they began burning President Woodrow Wilson’s hypocritical speeches in effigy. White was the one to drop them into the flames—and spent five days in jail for the act. When she was released, she toured the country on a public relations campaign via a train called the Prison Special. Every day, Americans came out in awe and wonder to see the female demonstrators.
With her considerable contacts in Tennessee and having proven she could handle political combat, White became a rising star in the NWP. In 1920, she was dispatched to her home state by Paul to lead the NWP’s Tennessee campaign and get the 19th Amendment ratified once and for all. She arrived in Nashville and booked a room at The Tulane Hotel, a competitor of The Hermitage and where Dudley had founded the Nashville Equal Suffrage League in 1911. After every parliamentary trick to block the vote had been exhausted, the Tennessee General Assembly called roll on August 18, 1920. The vote was dead even. At the last minute, Harry Burns of Niota switched his nay to aye—earlier, he had received a letter from his mother urging him to support ratification. When his vote broke the tie, the chamber floor erupted into pandemonium.
With Pearson in the middle of the action, one last act of subterfuge was attempted. A group of anti-ratification legislators known as the Red Rose Brigade snuck off to Alabama at 3 a.m. on a night train, hoping to prevent a quorum. They were unsuccessful, and eight days later the 19th Amendment was adopted and American women won the right to vote.
Conscience of a Community
Through the decorous and scandalous details of that Nashville summer, it’s easy to lose sight of what the fight was really about. Why exactly was the vote so important? For African-American community leader J. Frankie Pierce, the answer was simple: “the moral uplift of the community.” These were the words she offered when, in the spring of 1920, she was asked what “the Negro woman” wanted with the vote. Born in Nashville toward the end of the Civil War, and likely born a slave, Pierce was a leader in both her church and the black suffrage community of Nashville.
Among Pierce’s many crusades, such as advocating for restroom facilities for black women in downtown department stores, her lifelong commitment was to establish a vocational school for at-risk African-American girls. With segregation legal in the South, such institutions existed only for the white population. Black girls coming out of juvenile court were instead sent to adult prisons.
Pierce understood what winning the vote meant. She leveraged the suffrage victory, and the creation of a statewide vocational school for girls was added to the legislative agenda for the newly named Tennessee League of Women Voters, led by Abby Crawford Milton. Only eight months after Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment, the General Assembly passed a bill creating the Tennessee Vocational School for Colored Girls. The school opened two and a half years later, with Pierce as the first superintendent.
Despite this victory, the story of Pierce, like that of so many African-American women suffragists, has been lost to time and is often absent in the great retelling of the movement. It’s important to remember that the passage of the 19th Amendment was not a universal victory for all women. Segregation and Jim Crow laws still kept many black women from voting. It would take another long series of battles, fought both behind the scenes and in the streets—and led prominently by women—before African-American women realized full suffrage through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Tennessee Suffrage Monument will memorialize these five unflagging women, as well as the countless others who fought and won the right to vote. Though still in progress, the statue says it all. From the front, all five seem fiercely independent as individual protestors. Yet the beauty of the piece, like the beauty of the battle that summer, is that from behind, the five women are actually one entity, connected in their struggle through open arms and holding hands.