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By Jennifer Watts
The day had come for women to gather together and march for their right to vote. The crowd was around 2000 strong. Mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters cried out for support of their cause. The excitement and energy grew as the long line of women passed by; white dresses, yellow sashes and giant hats bobbing with each footfall. It was 1914 and the first suffrage parade in the South. As the group reached the end of the march from the Tennessee State Capitol to the steps of the Parthenon in Centennial Park in Nashville, a young mother named Anne Dallas Dudley stepped in front of the crowd. Who would have thought a woman known for dancing in the glittering ballrooms of Nashville would now be speaking in front of the people gathered, some showing signs of support while others glared with contempt.
Anne was not the typical socialite. She did not fall in line with the acceptable behavior of a woman of her high social position. She was born on November 13, 1876 to a family of wealth. Her family’s money granted her more opportunity than other girls her age. She received an education from Ward Seminary, which later merged with Belmont College for Young Women to become Ward-Belmont College and eventually Belmont College. She then attended Prince’s College for Young Ladies. Whether or not it was her family’s intention, the education she received prepared her for her future work as an activist for social change.
As an educator at the Tennessee State Museum who has spent years as a living history character interpreting Dudley’s life, in full white-gown-and-yellow-sash regalia, I have often pondered what drew a woman like her to step out of the dim lighting of an elegant ballroom to the bright streets of downtown Nashville. What moved her to risk her privileged lifestyle and reputation in support of a controversial cause? To get her right, I have to know what made her tick. Her early work in political movements offers a clue.
The author as suffragist
She started her political life by joining the local temperance organization’s fight to end the sale of alcohol. The best way to influence this change was through voting. In 1911 she became president of the newly formed Nashville Equal Suffrage League (NESL), an organization she had helped create. Carole Bucy, Professor of History at Volunteer State Community College and a contributing writer to The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, describes Dudley as a tireless worker. Under Dudley’s leadership the cry for “Votes for Women” grew. She promoted the idea that women were equal to men in that they too were American taxpayers. When her position was challenged by anti-suffragists, her response to their criticism, documented in the Nashville Tennessean, would have made the founding fathers of the country, and the founding mothers of the suffrage movement, proud.
“I have never yet met a man or woman who denied that taxation without representation is tyranny. I have never yet seen one who was such a traitor to our form of government that he did not believe that the government rests upon the consent of the governed. This is a government of, for, and by the people, and only the law denies that women are people.”
Nashville Tennessean, February 20, 1913
A photograph of suffragist Anne Dallas Dudley with her children as published in Mrs. John E. Turney's 1912 "Illustrated Sketches of Tennessee Women." (Bettie Mizell Donelson Family Papers, 1787-1938, collection at Tennessee State Library and Archives collection, THS 309)
Her quick wit and intelligence in response to naysayers led to her promotion to president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association in 1915. It was at this time she and fellow suffragists, like Abby Crawford Milton and Catherine Kenny of Chattanooga, worked to lobby the state legislature to add a suffrage amendment to the state constitution. When their attempt was met with defeat, she did not give up the fight. Instead, it inspired even more determintation. In an article published on February 2, 1917 in the Nashville Tennessean, Dudley is quoted as saying, “We are not cry babies … We will simply work harder for suffrage in Tennessee.” And she did just that. In 1919 a state amendment granting partial voting rights to women in presidential and municipal elections was passed.
Photograph of Anne Dallas Dudley and her daugter Trevania Dallas Dudley, c. 1911-1913 (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2018.153.2)
With the victory of partial suffrage for the women of Tennessee behind her, Dudley turned her focus to national suffrage in all elections. While working as vice-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) her dream finally came true when in the summer of 1920 the 19th Amendment was ratified by the state of Tennessee. Governor A.H. Roberts, whose painting hangs in the Tennessee State Capitol to this day, called for a special session which allowed Tennessee to be the 36th and final state needed for the amendment to be added to the U.S. Constitution on August 18, 1920. Dudley’s hard work and dedication proves that change can be made through perseverance and meeting each defeat with the resilience to continue to fight.
Portrait painting of Anne Dallas Dudley by Goode P. Davis, oil on canvas, c. 1950 (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2018.153.1)
Anne Dallas Dudley as part of Alan Lequire's Nashville Women's Suffrage Memorial at Centennial Park in Nashville (photo from https://alanlequire.com/nashville_women_suffrage/)
Dudley’s work and life is remembered today in multiple ways. On August 26, 2016, a monument by artist Alan LeQuire, commemorating the work of suffragists was unveiled in Centennial Park in Nashville. The sculpture depicts not only Dudley, but also Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the NAWSA in 1920, as well as Tennesseans Abby Crawford Milton, Juno Frankie Pierce, and Sue Shelton White. A proposal has also been made to turn the street in Nashville that connects the Nashville Public Library on Church Street to War Memorial Plaza on Union Street (renamed Anne Dallas Dudley Boulevard in 2017) into Anne Dallas Dudley Park. She will also be a highlighted figure in the Tennessee State Museum’s upcoming exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, Ratified! Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote opening in the spring of 2020.
And then there is me, and other Tennessee State Museum educators, who don our gowns and sashes in order to breathe life into the story of Dudley, and the many other women of the Tennessee suffrage movement.
Jennifer Watts is a Tennessee State Museum education specialist
Header Image: Undated photo from Tennessee State Library and Archives collection, 1286