This story also appears in our Summer 2020 Quarterly Newsletter.
In August 1920, the Tennessee General Assembly provided the final approval needed to ratify the 19th Amendment, securing women’s right to vote throughout the nation. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of this historic occasion, the Tennessee State Museum offers three new exhibit projects that explore the history of women’s suffrage in Tennessee. By highlighting local stories, these initiatives demonstrate that debates about women’s political rights were important to Tennesseans throughout the state.
The flagship Ratified! Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote temporary exhibition, supported in part by Bank of America, is located in the two large changing galleries at the Museum. Visitors will learn about what motivated Tennessee women to seek the vote and how the suffrage movement expanded to include thousands of women throughout the state. Visitors can view historic film footage excerpted from the Nashville Public Television documentary, By One Vote, as well archival photo of suffrage events from around the nation. Visitors will learn about the different strategies women used to advocate for the vote and the dramatic story of the Tennessee General Assembly’s ratification of the 19th Amendment. Visitors will also explore how women used their new political rights in a section of the legacy of the vote.
Artifacts included in the "Ratified!" exhibitions. Left to right: photograph of the Lake County Courthouse, Tiptonville (Tennessee State Library and Archives); Woman's Christian Temperance Union Pin; Booklet, “Descriptions of the Comfort Garments required for the Men of the Navy and Marine Corps,” 1917; photograph of the Ideal Art Group, Pulaski (Tennessee State Library and Archives).
Ratified! Statewide! is an online exhibition now available at TNMuseum.org which serves as a complimentary component of Ratified! Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote. It features a story related to women and politics for every Tennessee county. Visitors click on the interactive map to reveal the county stories and illustrations and learn more about women’s political activities in the state from the 1830s to the 1920s and beyond. The county stories featured online is also be available for visitors in a printed newspaper style gallery guide within the exhibit.
Working in partnership with the Tennessee State Library and Archives, museum staff have also developed a pop-up exhibition, To Make Our Voices Heard: Tennessee Women’s Fight for the Vote. This exhibit was made available to history organizations and libraries throughout the state, free-of- charge, so that communities all over Tennessee can commemorate and share stories about women’s suffrage history. Visitors will learn about the suffrage movement throughout the state, including how suffragists in each congressional district worked for the vote. This flexible “exhibit-in a-box” features high-quality panels which can be displayed to accommodate different spaces each community. Organizations are encouraged to add their own scholarship and research about their local history to the exhibit. This project is being produced with support from The Official Committee of the State of Tennessee Woman Suffrage Centennial and also in part by a grant from Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Numerous organizations throughout the state have already confirmed their reservations for this exhibit. Check TNWoman100.com for a location near you.
Section of the "Ratified! Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote" exhibition featuring Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
These exhibition projects together present a rich and diverse history of the suffrage movement and women’s political activities in Tennessee. Many Tennessee women first became politically engaged in the temperance movement to limit alcoholic beverages. Others wanted a greater voice in their communities and children’s schools. By the 1910s, women throughout the state worked to gain the vote. In this time of racial segregation, most suffrage leagues in the state had white memberships. However, many African American women’s organizations advocated for suffrage. In 1913, Sophia Jackson, a Nashville teacher, spoke in favor of women’s suffrage in a debate held in the Majestic Theatre. Fisk University students debated suffrage and decided in favor of votes for women. Some African American women like Nettie Langston Napier participated in Republican Party activities.
Mary Ellen Vaughn, Murfreesboro newspaper owner and civil rights advocate, in a horse and buggy, 1926 (Tennessee State Library and Archives).
By the late 1890s, there were at least ten local suffrage leagues active within Tennessee, and they joined together to form a state association. In 1914, Tennessee suffragists successfully invited the National American Woman Suffrage Association to have its conference in the state. This event generated much favorable publicity for the state movement, and some suffrage leaders credited it as a turning point. Beginning in 1915, suffragists launched an initiative led by Catherine Kenny of Nashville and Abby Crawford Milton of Chattanooga to expand the number of local leagues in the state. More than 25,000 Tennessee women belonged to suffrage leagues by 1918. Many Tennessee suffragists actively contributed to the World War I effort, demonstrating both their patriotism and their service to the nation. By 1919, more than 70 local suffrage leagues were active throughout the state.
Two Washington County women during the summer of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, July 1920 (Tennessee State Library and Archives).
These exhibit projects expand Tennessee’s suffrage stories beyond the urban centers and include the voices of women from different backgrounds living in communities throughout the state. For example, in 1916, the Fayetteville Equal Suffrage League reported: “We decorated an automobile in our colors and entered a Fourth of July parade and won first prize, fifty dollars. This has enabled us to join the State Association and do many things we have desired to do and could not because of the lack of funds.” An editorial in the Crossville Chronicle declared: “How can any intelligent person say…that women should have no voice in the government of their county, state and nation?” The Trenton Equal Suffrage League’s dramatic growth demonstrated the interest in women’s suffrage in this community: “…we started with 25 members, and now have a membership of 125….” In Giles County, suffragists secured a prominent space in the county courthouse for their association meetings. Women went door to door in Pulaski surveying voters concerning their position on suffrage, keeping careful notes on those for and against. They also shared suffrage publications with community residents. People living in communities large and small in East, West, and Middle Tennessee debated about whether women should vote. Not everyone agreed; but many people had an opinion on this important subject.
These are just a few of the stories told in Ratified! Statewide!, Ratified! Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote, and in the pop-up exhibition, To Make Our Voices Heard: Tennessee Women’s Fight for the Vote. Together, these exhibitions and initiatives bring the Tennessee story of women’s suffrage to all Grand Divisions, during the rest of this centennial year and into the next, giving Tennesseans throughout the state the opportunity to commemorate the historic ratification of the 19th Amendment, and their community’s role in this event.