Today in Feminist History: Tennessee to Vote on Ratification (June 23, 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 23, 1920: The Tennessee Legislature will vote on ratifying the Susan B. Anthony Amendment!

PORTRAIT: Governor Albert Roberts of Tennessee

If both Tennessee’s House and Senate approve the ratification resolution by simple majorities, the Volunteer State will become the 36th and final one needed to make the Anthony Amendment the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment will ensure that sex discrimination at the polls will be permanently and explicitly banned nationwide—and accomplished well before the Presidential election in November. 

Among the many factors that played a part in Governor Roberts announcing today that he would call the State Legislature back into special session so it could vote on ratification was a telegram from President Wilson which read:

“It would be a real service to the party and to the nation if it is possible for you under the peculiar provisions of your State Constitution, having in mind the recent decision of the Supreme Court in the Ohio case, to call a special session of the legislature of Tennessee to consider the suffrage amendment. Allow me to urge this very earnestly.”

The “peculiar provision” of the Tennessee Constitution the President refers to prohibits the State Legislature from ratifying a Federal Constitutional amendment passed by Congress until after a statewide election has occurred. It was thought that this would make it impossible for Tennessee to act until after the elections in November, but in Hawke v. Smith (253 U.S. 221), a case involving Ohio’s ratification of the 18th Amendment, the Supreme Court appears to have ruled any State laws that interfere with the right of a legislature to ratify a federal amendment at any time are unconstitutional.

The High Court’s opinion immediately made Tennessee the potential 36th State—if its governor would call the legislature back into session. Vermont and Connecticut had been the focus of intense suffrage efforts for months, because it was strongly believed that majorities of both States’ legislatures were eager to ratify. But neither body was in session, and their governors refused to call special sessions so the legislators could vote on ratification.

The refusal of two Republican governors to allow their States to deliver the woman suffrage amendment may turn out to be on of the biggest political mistakes in history. Republican support for suffrage has far exceeded that of Democrats, and done so for so long that when Susan B. Anthony “illegally” voted in 1872, she marked her ballot for Republican candidates only.

Six years later, it was a Republican Senator from California who introduced the Anthony Amendment in Congress. Four years ago, Alice Paul’s Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage—now the National Woman’s Party—campaigned throughout the West against the party in power—the Democrats—for failing to deliver Congressional approval of the Anthony Amendment.

The National Woman’s Party then escalated its anti-Democratic efforts on January 10, 1917, by beginning daily picketing of President Wilson by standing along the White House fence. On January 9, 1918, Wilson endorsed, then later began lobbying for, the Anthony Amendment. 

The final stage of the battle has also been led by Republicans, with the party’s overwhelming support—81.8 percent in the Senate and 91.3 percent in the House, versus 54 percent and 59.8 percent support by Democrats—pushing the affirmative vote total over the 2/3 supermajority required.

Twenty-six of the thirty-five States that have ratified the amendment had Republican majorities in their legislatures, six States were controlled by Democrats, and in three, one party controlled the lower house, the other the upper house.

But it’s now possible that the enormous amount of good will Republicans have earned from women over many decades with the party’s unwavering support for suffrage may be thrown away just a few months before a Presidential election if a Democratic State legislature, called into session by a Democratic governor at the request of a Democratic President, provides the 36th and final ratification needed, while Republican governors block ratification in two States.

Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio—the newly-chosen Republican nominee for President—also appears to be fumbling the ball just inches from the goal line. Though he personally favors woman suffrage, and voted for the Anthony Amendment when he was in the Senate, he told National Woman’s Party officers yesterday that it would not be proper for him to use his influence to pressure Republican governors to call special sessions in Vermont and Connecticut.

Though dissatisfied with Harding’s position, that relatively minor disappointment has been buried under the avalanche of good news over the past three weeks that has brought cheer to suffragists of all factions.

At National Woman’s Party headquarters earlier this evening, Alice Paul, whose criticism of Democrats has been quite stinging at times, said:

“I am delighted at this evidence that the Democrats recognize the opportunity which they now have to give the final ratification and complete the enfranchisement of the women of the country. The National Woman’s Party has contended that the Supreme Court made ratification by a special session of the legislature in Tennessee legal, and the President has undoubtedly been advised by the best legal authority before calling upon the Governor to summon the legislature. We hope that action in Tennessee will be immediate. We hope the Tennessee Legislature will save the situation for woman suffrage.”

The finish line in this marathon may finally be in sight, but since nothing has ever come to the suffrage movement easily or with certainty in all these years, it’s unlikely that the rest of our road to victory will be without suspense, or as short and direct as might be desired. But at least the days of trying to persuade millions of male voters to pass state suffrage referenda, or lobbying hundreds of members of Congress to pass the Anthony Amendment are now over, and all efforts can be focused on a single State legislature, and getting the support of just 50 of 99 House members and 17 of 33 State Senators! 


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.