Today in Feminist History: Tennessee Could Be the Key! (June 20, 1920)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

June 20, 1920: Though recent attempts to get the 36th and final State needed to ratify the Susan B. Anthony Amendment to the U.S. Constitution have concentrated on Delaware, Vermont and Connecticut, the National Woman’s Party launched a Southern strategy today. 

PHOTO: Sue Shelton White, head of the Tennessee branch of the National Woman’s Party.

The reason Tennessee hasn’t been a priority until now is because there is a provision in its State Constitution which requires that a Statewide election must take place between the time a Constitutional amendment is submitted by Congress to the States, and its approval by the Tennessee Legislature.

Since the proposed 19th Amendment was submitted on June 4, 1919, it was thought that no action could be taken in Tennessee until after those elected in the General Election on November 2, 1920, take their seats.

But a recent Supreme Court ruling in Hawke v. Smith (253 U.S. 221), regarding ratification of the 18th Amendment may have implications for the proposed 19th, and invalidate any restrictions on a State legislature’s right to ratify at any time.

As Sue Shelton White explained in a letter sent today to Governor Albert Roberts of Tennessee:

“Since the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States on June 1 in the case of Hawke v. Smith, I have consulted a number of lawyers, including the Solicitor-General of the United States, in regard to the effect that the decision may have upon the provision of the Tennessee Constitution which attempts to restrict the power of the General Assembly to act upon amendments to the Federal Constitution …

“Acting upon the legal opinions, I am, as chairman of the Tennessee Branch of the National Woman’s Party, and in behalf of the national organization of the National Woman’s Party, submitting to you this formal request that you call the General Assembly of Tennessee into extraordinary session for the purpose of ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

“This request is made with a full appreciation of every doubt that could possibly arise as to the validity of ratification by the present Tennessee Assembly and after due consideration of the contingencies that might arise should the doubt be resolved against the power of the Legislature to act.”

Though 35 States have already ratified the Anthony Amendment, 36 out of 48 are necessary for it to become part of the U.S. Constitution. The lack of one more State’s approval before November 2, 1920, would keep millions of women in States which presently deny them the vote from taking part in this year’s General Election. Unless special legislation is enacted, it’s already too late for women in Georgia and Mississippi, because the last day for voter registration in those States is six months before the election, meaning voter rolls for this year were closed on May 2.

As with every amendment except the 18th, there has been no deadline placed on when ratification of the 19th Amendment must occur. But the longer the ratification process takes, the more registration deadlines will be missed, and with the passage of each one, the number of women who will be able to participate in November’s Presidential election decreases. So a quick victory in Tennessee is now a top priority—and a distinct possibility!


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.