Today in Feminist History: The Fight for Tennessee (September 1, 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.


September 1, 1920: Alice Paul remains calm and confident today, despite yesterday’s surprise attack on the 19th Amendment by the Tennessee House.

Thirteen days after the House voted to ratify on August 18th, making Tennessee the 36th and final State needed to put the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment into the Constitution, it voted on August 31st to erase its previous action from the House Journal and passed a resolution of “non-concurrence” with the Tennessee Senate’s ratification resolution of August 13th. 

The group of anti-suffragists behind this move has been unusually tricky and persistent. A few days after the ratification resolution passed the House on the 18th, most of those who voted against it snuck out of town on a midnight train to Alabama to prevent a quorum from being present on the House floor to deal with one last piece of parliamentary procedure. Suffrage supporters wanted to bring up and defeat a “motion to reconsider” that might possibly have been valid, and would have complicated things considerably if passed. 

The retreat of the “antis” to Alabama failed to thwart our forces, however, because it turned out that the definition of a quorum for Federal business was less than the 2/3 required for State business, so despite only 59 members being present in the 99-member House, the pro-suffrage majority was able to legally take up and overwhelmingly defeat the reconsideration motion, thus tying up the last loose end. 

Still not ready to concede defeat, the “antis” then got a local judge to issue an order prohibiting Tennessee’s Governor, Albert Roberts, from signing a certificate stating that ratification had been properly completed in Tennessee. But on August 24th, the Governor and the State Attorney General persuaded the Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court to dissolve the local judge’s order, so the Governor quickly signed the certificate and sent it straight to U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby. On August 26th, Colby received the final certificate needed, and declared that 2/3 of Congress and 3/4 of the States had legally ratified what was now the 19th Amendment, so the matter seemed settled once and for all. 

But yesterday, with local suffrage supporters thinking that this latest “Battle of Nashville” was over, the “antis” returned from Alabama and sprung their surprise. Taking a fast and secret poll, they knew that with several pro-suffrage members absent due to illness, and others having not yet arrived for what was expected to be just another routine session, the “antis” had a temporary majority of those present and voting, and rapidly pushed their motions through.

Their actions are not meeting with the approval of anyone except other rabid anti-suffragists. The Tennessee Senate, which on August 13th voted 25-4 (with 4 not voting or absent) to ratify the 19th Amendment, not only refused to reverse their own vote to ratify, but voted 17-8 (with 8 absent or not voting) to refuse to accept, and to return to the House, the message sent them announcing the vote of rescission. House members will now try to send their message to Governor Roberts, who as a strong supporter of suffrage won’t accept it either. Some in the House have vowed to vote against all Senate bills sent their way for the rest of the special session as retaliation against the Senate’s snub today, while others suggested immediate adjournment as a way of showing their discontent.

But while our opponents fuss and fume in Nashville, calm and confidence prevails at the D.C. offices of the National Woman’s Party. After talking to Alice Paul in New York by telephone, the party issued a statement that it is ” …so secure in the belief in the legality of ratification of the suffrage amendment by 36 States and of Secretary of State Colby’s proclamation, that no active campaign for a 37th State is planned.” Paul said in a statement later: “After consulting several constitutional lawyers, we are sure that suffrage is a fact.”

Special sessions of their legislatures have been called in Connecticut and Alabama for later this month. Though the session in Connecticut was called to make provisions for the registration of women voters following the 19th Amendment’s ratification, the National League of Women Voters is launching a campaign to put ratification on the agenda as well, because approval by a 37th State would render the Tennessee House’s action irrelevant even if upheld, since 36 valid ratifications would still remain. 

Officials at the U.S. Justice Department were not ready to make a formal statement about the actions in Tennessee because they are waiting to get a request from President Wilson for their opinion in the matter. But officials did say informally that if Connecticut ratified it would make Tennessee’s status moot. Secretary of State Colby, who signed the proclamation that the 19th Amendment was properly ratified, expressed no concerns about his proclamation being upheld, and said he was no longer part of the process. He explained that his duties in the matter were ministerial, that he had taken his action in signing the proclamation based on the facts as presented at the time, and that this was now a judicial matter. Everyone agrees on his last point about ratification being a judicial issue now. 

There is no doubt that the validity of the 19th Amendment will be taken up by the courts. The American Constitutional League’s attorneys plan several kinds of attacks. They will take their present case challenging ratification from the District of Columbia Court of Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. They will also argue against the validity of Tennessee’s original ratification when the Tennessee Supreme Court convenes on the 20th of this month, and will try to get it to issue a writ of mandamus to force Governor Roberts to withdraw his name from Tennessee’s certificate of ratification. But their biggest potential for causing major problems will come from initiating actions to prohibit election officials in States where women did not have voting rights prior to passage of the 19th Amendment from registering them. Suffrage leaders have vowed to fight all these challenges as their final actions in the battle to ban sex discrimination at the polls.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court will not even convene until October, it will be well after the November 2nd elections when a final, definitive ruling on the 19th Amendment will be issued. This means that two nightmare possibilities could occur. If the amendment is eventually upheld, but substantial numbers of women were prohibited from registering and voting until the case was decided, the validity of the Presidential election – as well as many others – could be challenged. Or, in the unlikely event that the High Court rules the 19th Amendment not to have been valid by Election Day, women who were permitted to register and vote in non-suffrage States under its authority would be considered “illegal” voters, and this could also call the results of many elections into question. 

But like most everyone else, organized labor appears to be confident that the 19th Amendment will be upheld, because today the National Non-Partisan Political Campaign Committee of the American Federation of Labor sent out a letter to its affiliates all around the country telling them to make a special effort to appeal to women voters, especially in Labor Day speeches. The letter concluded by saying: “We suggest that local speakers should make a special effort to present to the women of the country the fact that labor’s political program is for the better home, the well-fed and happy child, the elimination of exploitation of child labor for profit.”

At the moment, registration of newly-enfranchised women voters is going well in most States. Though there could be problems in States that must pass laws enabling women to register after the usual deadline – which in at least two States passed before the 19th Amendment became effective – there is a consensus that barring unexpected developments, and with Congress having been given the power to enforce the amendment, tens of millions of new women voters will be voting for all offices and on all initiatives and referenda on the November 2nd ballot.


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About

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.