By Robin Smith
Did you know all men could vote before any women?
Following the Emancipation Proclamation– which was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in September 1862, and was issued as an Executive Order on January 1, 1863– the fight to recognize all men as created equal, as the founding documents had declared, began.
The Reconstruction Amendments to the US Constitution, the 13th, 14th and 15th, ended slavery, defined citizenship and equal protection under the law to those born in the United States of America and the universal suffrage for all men, regardless of race, color or “previous condition of servitude.” The US Constitution was ratified in 1870 to reflect passage of these critically important amendments that honored the founding documents and the Creator’s handiwork of equality.
Wrongly, according the US National Archives, “the white supremacist wing of the Democratic Party dominated the South,” delayed black men from voting as poll taxes, literacy test and intimidation prevailed as the Union presence ebbed in the region after the Civil War. Yet, legally, men in the US had the legal right to vote, while the effort to include women had failed after many attempts.
It wasn’t until 1920, over 50 years later, that the Woman’s Suffrage Movement was successful after decades of effort. Tennessee women of all races and stations of life were the driving force to the made-for-TV finish in giving women the right to vote.
Thirty-six states needed to pass legislation to ratify the US Constitution with the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Tennessee was one of the last hopes, despite other southern states having voted in opposition to awarding women voting rights.
Tennessee was the national epicenter of attention during the hot summer of 1920. A special session was called by Governor A.H. Roberts, who had initially opposed women’s suffrage. While the drama on the Tennessee House floor featured tied votes, scuffles and a gasp-producing final vote, opponents wore red roses and supporters, yellow roses, making vote-counting easier in Tennessee’s War of the Roses.
Among the tireless women fighting for the right to vote in Tennessee were Chattanoogan Abby Crawford Milton and prominent black women, J. Frankie Pierce, Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell. Their speeches, letter-writing and travel across the state were carried out in a day when communications were almost exclusively via the written word and when transportation was limited and grueling.
Yet, these pillars of strength and determination worked doggedly to ratify the US Constitution through their work to make Tennessee the 36th state to pass the required legislation.
Remember August 18 as the date that Tennessee women spoke with one voice, transcending race or socio-economic standing, for women’s right to vote that ultimately gave millions of American women that right in 1920.