The Woman Suffrage movement is a milestone in the political and social history of the United States, yet it is virtually unacknowledged in the chronicles of our history.
The Woman Suffrage movement is commonly dated from 1848 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and others met for tea and planned the first Woman’s Rights Convention. This convention, now known as the Seneca Falls Convention, resulted in the Declaration of Sentiments, a protest modeled on the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration, which was the first public protest against women’s political, social and economic inferiority, included a demand for the ballot in the list of reforms.
The battle for Woman Suffrage was a 72-year political struggle with ceaseless campaigns for the right to vote. In August, 1920, the struggle realized success when the Susan B. Anthony Amendment was finally ratified in a crucial and dramatic vote in the Tennessee legislature.
That ratification came only through the dedication and personal sacrifice of thousands of women across the state who worked continually to build a strong suffrage organization in Tennessee.
The Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial
Three of Tennessee’s noted suffragists are enshrined on the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial on Market Square in Knoxville, Tennessee. The three represent Tennessee’s three grand divisions:
Lizzie French lived from 1851 to 1926. She was a prominent and accomplished statewide leader who, among other things, founded the Knoxville Equal Suffrage Association, and served as President of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, Inc.
From her famous speech as the first woman to address the Tennessee Bar Association:
“Bullets and ballots are not companions; but ballots in the hands of people are supposed to be a substitute for bullets in the hands of hired agents…Thanks be to God that in giving women the crown of motherhood he made her the giver not the taker of life. Woman has no greater claim to the rights of the ballot than that she is a producer not a destroyer of life.”
Anne Dudley lived from 187 to 1955. She was a prominent suffrage leader in Tennessee. She was the first President of the Nashville Equal Suffrage League, served as president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, Inc., and a vice-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
“We have a vision-a vision of a time when a woman’s home will be the whole wide world, her children all those whose feet are bare, and her sisters all who need a helping hand: a vision of a new knighthood, of a new chivalry, when men will fight not only for women but for the rights of women.”
Elizabeth Meriwether lived from 1824 to 1916. She published her own newspaper, The Tablet. She held the first Tennessee public meeting to discuss women’s rights in 1876. She served as a delegate to the National Suffrage Convention in 1879.
Inspired by news of Susan B. Anthony’s attempted 1872 vote, Elizabeth Avery Meriwether dared to vote in the 1876 presidential election and reported…
“when I tested the matter, I was allowed to cast my ballot. Whether it was counted I cannot say. But counting my ballot was not important; what was important was to focus public attention to the monstrous injustice of including educated women with felons and lunatics as persons denied the right of suffrage.”
The Suffrage Coalition has preserved the important history of Tennessee’s role in the woman suffrage victory. In partnership with its many supporters, the Coalition established the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial on Market Square, provided funds for the digitization of suffrage documents, sponsored events honoring the history of woman’s suffrage campaign, and assisted with the collection and preservation of suffrage memorabilia.
You can read and explore local suffrage information at the Calvin McClung Historical Collection of the Knox County Public Library.
Or visit the Women in History section of the Tennessee State Archives.