August 20, 1920: Suffrage is Safe in Tennessee, For Now

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


Another day of cheering and waving of yellow banners from the galleries of the Tennessee House as day before yesterday’s pro-suffrage majority held together, and kept ratification of the 19th Amendment intact.

When Tennessee became the 36th and final State needed to ratify, the anti-suffrage Speaker of the House changed his vote to “Aye” at the last moment so that he would have the right to introduce a motion – an any time during the next two days – to reconsider and reverse the vote to ratify.

But despite a boastful speech made at an anti-suffrage rally last night by Speaker Walker that he would have the votes to undo ratification today, he instead made a motion to adjourn until Monday, in hopes that he could change at least two votes over the weekend. Suffrage supporters defeated that motion with numbers identical to those cast for ratification on the 18th, so when it became obvious that no suffrage supporters had defected to the other side, cheering broke out.

Alice Paul's 36-star ratification flag, on which she sewed a new star every time a State ratified the 19th Amendment.
Alice Paul’s 36-star ratification flag, on which she sewed a new star every time a State ratified the 19th Amendment.

Suffrage forces eagerly agreed to adjourn until tomorrow morning, when there will be a rare Saturday session. Though the State Attorney General and a number of experts on parliamentary procedure have said that Walker’s failure to bring up the motion to reconsider within two days should settle the issue, suffragists want no loose ends. Since a motion to reconsider is still on the House Journal as a matter of record, suffrage supporters plan to bring it up tomorrow and either defeat it outright or permanently table it. Now that two days have passed since the original vote, a motion to reconsider can be brought up by any member who voted in favor, not just the Speaker. This will be done at the time of the pro-suffrage leader’s choosing, and only if defeat of the measure is absolutely certain. Once this motion to reconsider is disposed of, there can be no further action on suffrage by the Tennessee House.

Needless to say, suffragists are continuing to keep close to their legislative allies to make sure that there are no defections, because only two switches could change a 49-47 vote to defeat the reconsideration resolution into a 49-47 vote to retract ratification and give opponents an issue to litigate in court. Although it’s believed that rescinding ratification is not legal, because two rescissions of the 14th Amendment were never recognized, such a move would give those who want to delay implementation of the new amendment an excuse to do so.

Of course, there will be court action no matter what happens. Judge Joseph Higgins, President of the Tennessee Constitutional League, said that he would ask for a writ of injunction to be issued against Governor Roberts restraining him from signing a certification that the Tennessee Legislature had properly ratified the 19th Amendment, as well as prohibiting U.S. Secretary of State Colby from issuing a proclamation that it is part of the Constitution.

The legal issue here is that the Tennessee Constitution prohibits the legislature from ratifying a Federal amendment sent to the States by Congress until after a Statewide election has taken place and the new legislature seated. The 19th Amendment was approved by Congress on June 4, 1919, and the first Statewide election after that date will not occur until November 2nd of this year. But virtually all legal scholars and authorities believe that a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June regarding Ohio’s ratification of the 18th Amendment declared that all restrictions on a State legislature’s right to ratify an amendment at any time are unconstitutional.

While desperate and dejected anti-suffragists are pinning their hopes on long-shot legal challenges and last-minute conversions, suffragists are so confident that their work is nearly done that campaign offices are being dismantled, and train reservations for tomorrow are being made so that victorious veterans of the last battle in the fight for suffrage can begin leaving for home right after the vote to reject the motion to reconsider.

Carrie Chapman Catt, never one to take anything for granted, has nevertheless begun the switch from planning campaign strategy to thinking about how to celebrate the victory. While reading through the latest batch of telegrams of congratulations, she said:

“We suffragists have worked so hard and against such odds that we have forgotten how to play.” When asked about the details of the upcoming nationwide celebration, she said: “Many proposals are coming in, but I have made no plans. The credit is not mine. It belongs to all that faithful band who have struggled for political freedom.”

Thinking back over her three decades of work, Catt also said: “What has sustained me in this thirty year contest? My unswerving belief in the righteousness of woman suffrage.”

Alice Paul has been busy with post-ratification duties as well. She has been sending telegrams on behalf of the National Woman’s Party to Attorneys General in States where women had no voting rights, and therefore have never been allowed to register, asking whether women will be able to register and vote in their States on the same basis as men once the U.S. Secretary of State issues his proclamation that the 19th Amendment has been properly ratified. No additional legislation in the States should be required to allow women to vote, because the amendment is self-executing and overrides any State laws restricting the vote to men. So her inquiry is simply to find out whether the funds and machinery necessary to register women are available.

Some States where women had partial suffrage, such as New Hampshire, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Mississippi, and well as Virginia, where they had no voting rights, have passed enabling acts specifically affirming the right of women to vote under the 19th Amendment, and similar legislation is pending in North Carolina, where women have never voted. Attorneys General in Georgia, New Mexico, Ohio, North Dakota and New Jersey, where women had partial suffrage, plus Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Florida, where women had no voting rights, have given informal opinions that no special legislation is needed, and that women can register and vote on the same basis as men. The Governor of the partial-suffrage State of Missouri said that if there are any problems with the registration of women, he will call a special session of the State Legislature to remove the barriers. Yet to be heard from are Alabama, South Carolina and Maryland, where women had no voting rights, and Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana and Vermont, where women had partial suffrage and could vote for some offices but not others.

Though registering millions of new women voters to vote in the November 2nd General Election, overcoming resistance by anti-suffrage State officials, and fighting off court challenges is a huge task, it pales in comparison to the challenge of achieving the victory won day before yesterday. So, the job is in competent hands, and should certainly get done in time.

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