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This story also appears in our Summer 2020 Quarterly Newsletter.
by Mary Skinner
When the 75th anniversary of women’s suffrage was celebrated across the nation in 1995, the pivotal role that Tennessee played in the passing of the 19th Amendment coincided with another important celebration — the Tennessee Bicentennial. While 1996 officially marked Tennessee’s bicentennial of becoming a U.S. state, several public events and projects concurred to commemorate both of these important historic occasions.
During this time, U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen of Memphis, who was then a Tennessee state senator, and Tennessee House Representative Brenda Turner of Chattanooga, sponsored legislation to fund the creation of a suffrage artwork which would be on public view in the Tennessee State Capitol. At that time no monument existed to commemorate Tennessee suffragists or the momentous event that took place in the Tennessee Capitol and led to 27 million American women gaining the right to vote.
According to Paula Casey, who was a co-chairperson of the Tennessee Commemorative Woman’s Suffrage Commission, along with former Tennessee Senator Thelma Harper, the funding assisted with the creation of the Capitol’s commemorative suffrage bas-relief as well as the book The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage, by writers Carol Lynn Yellin and Janann Sherman with editor Ilene Jones-Cornwell.
The funding for the bas-relief was given to the Tennessee Arts Commission to manage. After a call for submissions sent to artists around the state, Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire’s proposal was selected. LeQuire’s concept of a bronze bas-relief was based on a historic photograph he had seen of an East Tennessee public protest. As LeQuire explained, “the bronze bas-relief shows a female who I consider to be every woman, she is waving a flag and rising up over a sea of disinterested men.” Since the completion of this work, LeQuire has been commissioned to sculpt nineteen suffragist portraits across the state.
The original photograph which inspired the bas-relief was taken by Jim Thompson in March 1907 at a Temperance Parade in Knoxville’s Market Square, and the woman singing to the crowd is Temperance activist Vera Smith. It is part of the Abby Crawford Milton Collection at the Knox County Public Library System. Milton, who hailed from Chattanooga, was the last president of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Association.
Should the Tennessee State Capitol be open to the public and available for guided tours in the future, the State Museum will be offering Women’s Suffrage-themed tours to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment. The tour will give visitors the chance to view this commemorative bronze bas-relief and hear the story of women’s suffrage in the place where it happened. Visitors will learn more about the movement in Tennessee, how local suffragists mobilized support, and what happened in those fateful moments leading up to the climactic vote in the House Chamber. Please visit tnmuseum.org/state-capitol for more information on when these tours will be available.
Mary Skinner, the Tennessee State Museum’s Community and Media Relations Officer, serves on the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Centennial Collaborative.