On Tuesday, August 18 at 2:30 p.m. CST, the Tennessee State Museum will unfurl a banner replica of the National Woman's Party 36-star flag off the veranda of the south side of the Museum, facing Bicentennial Mall and the State Capitol. The event with be also be livestreamed on our Facebook page. Below, Museum executive director Ashley Howell offers some context on the history of the 36-star flag and what it represented.
by Ashley Howell
It began with the threading of a needle. With careful precision, a star was sewn on a flag at the National Woman’s Party (NWP) headquarters. As the states began to vote one by one for the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the women of the NWP sewed each star as a symbol of the ratification for each state victory for woman’s suffrage. The flag was the colors of the movement—purple, white, and gold—and represented visually the progress of the larger woman’s suffrage movement led by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the NWP.
Thirty-six states were needed to ratify the federal amendment, or three-fourths of what was then 48 states. Thirty-six stars would mean success, and give an estimated 17,000,000 women across the United States the right to vote.
National Woman's Party activists watch Alice Paul sew a star onto the NWP Ratification Flag, representing another state's ratification of the 19th Amendment. (Library of Congress, National Photo Co., Washington, D.C. [Photographer])
In anticipation of the 36th star, all eyes were on Tennessee in the summer of 1920. Sue Shelton White, from Henderson, Tennessee, was the Tennessee director for the NWP at that time. Like most Tennessee suffragists, White began her work in the movement with NAWSA affiliated organizations. In 1918, she moved to the NWP, attracted by this group’s more assertive tactics. Now, Sue White was in Nashville to oversee NWP activities as officials from the NAWSA also arrived in Nashville.
Now was the moment. Tennessee’s vote was in the House of Representatives Chamber on the morning of August 18, 1920. The Senate had already voted to ratify by a 25-4 vote only five days before. The House voted to ratify in a dramatic, close vote, and the Chamber erupted in cheers and chaos. Sue White rushed to notify Alice Paul, leader of the NWP, by telegram to share the good news.
It was time to thread the needle. The thirty-sixth star, the final star, was sewn on the flag. That afternoon, Paul appeared on the balcony of the organization's headquarters in Washington, D.C. to unfurl the ratification banner to NWP members below.
When Tennessee the 36th state ratified, Aug 18, 1920, Alice Paul, National Chairman of the Woman's Party, unfurled the ratification banner from Suffrage headquarters. (Library of Congress, National Photo Co., Washington, D.C. [Photographer]
From Paul’s statement that day:
“The victory of women today completes the political democracy of America and enfranchises half the people of a great nation. It is a victory that has been won not by any individual or group, but by all those women who since the time of the revolution have suffered and protested against the humiliation of disfranchisement and proclaimed the equality of men and women.”
For one hundred years, American women have continued to fight for their voices to be heard through the election process. The handiwork of these women can be seen today, not in a ratification banner, but in continued involvement of women in local, state, and federal government elections. For the women who let their voices be heard, thank you.
Ashley Howell is the executive director of the Tennessee State Museum
James P. Louis, “Sue Shelton White and the Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee, 1913-1920,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 22 (1963): 170-90
Anastasia Sims, “Powers that Pray and “Powers that Prey: Tennessee and the Fight for Woman Suffrage,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 50 (1991): 203-225
Elaine Weiss, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote, 2018
Tina Cassidy, Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait? Alice Paul, Woodrow Wilson, and the Fight for the Right to Vote, 2019
 “Flag With 36 Stars Unfurled at Woman’s Party Headquarters,” The Journal and Tribune, Knoxville, TN, August 30, 1920.
 “Ratification Flag is Flying,” The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, CA, August 19, 1920.