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By Grace Allen
They say that dynamite comes in small packages, or so my aunt frequently tells me. But when it comes to museum collections, I think this expression rings especially true. Sometimes the smallest objects tell the loudest stories. In our Change and Challenge exhibition at the Tennessee State Museum, we have the perfect example of this kind of artifact. Beyond the bootleg whiskey still in the prohibition display, and beneath the women’s suffrage banner, there is a very small button that could easily be missed. It is only one and a quarter inches in diameter, but its bright red color and bold black text gets the message across clearly: “Vote NO on woman suffrage.”
The Museum's Suffrage display in the Change and Challenge exhibition. The "Vote No" Button is exhibited directly below the banner.
One hundred years ago, the Nineteenth Amendment determined the fate of millions of women’s political rights. Tennessee became the crucial 36th state needed to ratify the amendment that finally granted women the right to vote in every state. It was a dramatic triumph for the suffragists, and a story you can learn more about in our upcoming exhibition, Ratified! Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote. This tiny button may appear to be a mere remnant of the story, but it is also a powerful reminder that the triumph of women’s suffrage came after a very divisive struggle.
Vote No on Woman Suffrage Button (Tennessee State Museum Collection, 126.96.36.199)
The great thing about museum artifacts is that they are not static. The same object can be studied from different angles to tell multiple stories. This little button could be used to touch on a number of related topics, but today let’s use this button to focus on female anti-suffragists. It might seem strange, but there were actually a number of women who fought against their own enfranchisement. Buttons like this one could have been pinned to a woman’s blouse just as easy as a man’s lapel.
Women fought against the vote for various combinations of social and political reasons. Some female anti-suffragists believed that a woman’s rightful place was in the home and were concerned with the effect politics would have on women. They believed that women were to be kept pure and above the corrupt realm of politics. Another common anti-suffrage argument was that voting, once it was granted, was an obligation. If women were given the right to vote, women would be forced to become involved in politics regardless of their choice. In the same vein, they argued that women would then join political parties rather than being not-partisan entities with the ability to approach either party with their concerns. These arguments hinged on the idea that women’s place in society and politics was on the sidelines and at home. But not all female anti-suffragists represented the beacon of hearth and home.
Perhaps the most notable Tennessee anti-suffragist was Josephine Anderson Pearson. Pearson was a talented lobbyist and organizer. She had a master’s degree and served as a teacher and administrator at several colleges throughout her career. Despite being an independent career woman, Pearson was staunchly opposed to women’s suffrage. She was elected president of both the Southern Woman’s League for the Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment and the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Ida Tarbell, the notable investigative journalist, was also one of the more nationally famous female anti-suffragists of the time. Tarbell may have made a career out of advocating for social change and for the intelligence and capability of women, but she also wrote against female suffrage in The Business of Being a Woman.
Tennessee Equal Suffrage Campaign Committee Banner (Tennessee State Museum collection, 9.611.2)
Many southern anti-suffragists, like Josephine Pearson, had other motives in addition to the idea of women’s roles. The Nineteenth Amendment was contentious, not only for its contents, but because of the implications of federal intervention in voting rights. About thirty years before the nineteenth amendment, Tennessee, like many other Southern states, passed a series of Jim Crow laws that effectively disenfranchised most African American voters. Many white southerners did not like the idea that a federal amendment that might set a precedent for overriding state legislature. They feared this amendment would threaten the system of Jim Crow and adamantly fought against the amendment to, as a broadside put it, “save the South.” It is important to note that most white suffragists still were not in favor of overturning African American disenfranchisement. They simply believed the nineteenth amendment would not disrupt the status quo.
I Am Opposed to Woman Suffrage Pledge Card (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2008.11.6)
There were also women who started out as suffragists but became opponents of the amendment. Kate Gordon, of Louisiana, was the leader of the states’ rights suffrage movement. Gordon, along with many white southern women, pushed for individual state legislatures to enfranchise women. The intention of this strategy, at its heart, meant to ensure suffrage for white women, while maintaining African American voter suppression. When the nineteenth amendment was put to the states for ratification, Gordon, along with Laura Clay and other notable states’ rights suffragists, joined the anti-suffrage cause in Nashville, and actively fought against ratification in 1920.
It is shocking that there were women who actively worked against their own enfranchisement, and unsettling for some of the reasons these women fought against the vote. One hundred years later, it’s easy to look back and see the passage of the amendment as a simple and inevitable conclusion to the story, rather than the complex reality that it was at the time. Small artifacts like this button tell giant, complicated stories. So next time you are able to visit the State Museum, be on the lookout for the little things. You might find something only an inch in size that has a thousand stories to tell.
The Tennessee State Museum's new exhibition on women's suffrage, Ratified! Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote, opens later this year.
Grace Allen is a Tennessee State Museum educator