Did you know that Tennessee was the deciding factor in ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment? I’ve lived here my entire life, and I didn’t realize this until a few days ago. I’m a woman who started voting in Madison County elections in 2011, but I would not have had that privilege if I had been born before 1920. If I were a black woman, I would not have been able to vote in the South without threats to my life and racist voter suppression state laws until 1965. There are entire historical movements that led to the freedom women have to vote today, and there are women from West Tennessee who were heavily influential in making this possible. It’s time that we learned more about them in the hopes that more knowledge about our history might lead to even greater inclusivity and equality in our future.
Let’s start at the beginning, with me admitting my own ignorance about women’s suffrage. I think it’s good for you to know my shortcomings before you read what I’ve written, so you won’t be tempted to take my word as law. Disclaimer: the women’s suffrage movement was influenced by many people of different genders and ethnicities. I’d have to write books to include them all, so I’ll just be focusing on three suffragists in this narrative.
My first introduction to women’s suffrage was through the 1964 Disney musical Mary Poppins. As a child, I watched the characters dance and sing across my TV screen without fully understanding what all was going on. If you haven’t seen Mary Poppins, I’ll set the stage for you. Two children in England have very busy parents, so they get this awesome, magical nanny who is also super no-nonsense and happens to have the good fortune to be Julie Andrews. But let’s forget her for a moment and focus on the parents—specifically the mother.
Winifred Banks is introduced to the movie via a song called “Sister Suffragette.” It becomes clear to the adult viewer that Winifred is so busy out getting “votes for women” that she’s not fully attentive to the plight of her children who misbehave for nannies and want more attention from their parents. In the scene, she bursts into the house all riled up about women’s suffrage, singing that “though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid” and completely missing that the current nanny is attempting to quit her job right in the middle of her impromptu song.
I loved Winifred’s song as a child without actually understanding the social commentary. I didn’t know, for instance, that “Sister Suffragette” is referencing the “Votes For Women” movement spearheaded by Emmeline Pankhurst, the real-life English suffragist. I also didn’t realize that, while Winifred’s cause was admirable and had great future impact, it wasn’t particularly kind to her role as a mother. She had to sacrifice time with her children in order to fight for her rights, as many suffragists had to sacrifice their money, jobs, and social standing to gain the vote.
I think it’s too easy to look at Winifred Banks now and wonder what all of the fuss was about. Look at these women who got all worked up over voting when now it’s no big deal! I see this same nonchalant attitude in the people who insist that we no longer need feminism because women can vote in the U.S. Do they know that, right here in our country and in others around the world, women are sold as sex slaves, beaten and killed in domestic disputes, forced into child marriages, mutilated for religious rituals, and raped on college campuses? It seems a little arrogant to believe that we’ve evolved past needing basic human rights and bodily autonomy because the truth is, we haven’t.
We should remember what Susan B. Anthony said when fighting for the right to vote way back in 1894: “We shall some day be heeded, and when we shall have our amendment to the Constitution of the United States, everybody will think it was always so, just exactly as many young people believe that all privileges, all the freedom, all the enjoyments which woman now possesses always were hers. They have no idea of how every single inch of ground that she stands upon today has been gained by the hard work of some little handful of women of the past” [emphasis mine].
Anthony predicted my ignorance today. She knew that I would hardly ever have to wait in line to vote in my small town, that I wouldn’t be challenged in my civic duty based on my gender or race, and that I wouldn’t really know half as much as I should about the history of women voting. Yet, even though Anthony knew her efforts wouldn’t always be remembered or appreciated, she knew that they would last, and that’s what mattered to her. Anthony died before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, but she looked into the future when the rest of the world was grossly behind.
Another woman who was heavily involved in gaining our suffrage was Mary Church Terrell. She did a lot more than that, though, and the truth is that she struggled with even more discrimination than someone like Susan B. Anthony. Terrell’s story began in Memphis in 1863. The Civil War raged through the South. Over 600,000 Americans died, by illness or violence, during this time. Yet, in spite of the death all around, new life entered the world as soldiers and slaves left it. On September 23, 1863, a baby named Mary Eliza Church was born. Her parents were slaves, and her grandmother was an African woman transplanted from her home country to serve a white family.
Terrell’s father, Robert Church, became a prosperous business owner, landowner, and homeowner. This was almost unheard of for someone who had been a slave for most of his life. Robert Church faced discrimination even as a rich and well-respected man, however, due to the color of his skin. So as his daughter grew up in wealth, going to progressive schools such as Oberlin College and touring Europe (something many well-to-do young people did in the late 1800’s), she was still arrested for the slightest misunderstanding. She was still mocked for her looks by white college students, even though Terrell could actually pass as a white person due to the lightness of her skin. She experienced racism just as every person of color did, but her position as an educated woman gave her a gift: Terrell had become someone that others listened to and believed. Terrell could speak on others’ behalf, to raise concern for the poor and disenfranchised, to make a way for other black Americans.
Terrell spent most of her life in Washington, D.C., teaching and lobbying for both women’s rights and civil rights alike, but she traveled back to West Tennessee for many of her summers. There she saw how Jim Crow laws depressed the South; for example, Tennessee passed legislation allowing hotels and restaurants to exclude black people in 1875. Terrell also saw the horrors of the yellow fever epidemic that swept Memphis in 1878. Over 5,000 people died, and the state of Tennessee actually took away the city’s charter in 1879. People thought that Memphis was done for. But Terrell’s father, along with other concerned citizens, bought more land in Memphis and helped bring the city back. Just when times were looking dire, Terrell’s family kept fighting.
Terrell became the president of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, leading women in campaigns for better schools and opportunities for black children around the country. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed, Terrell was one of its founders, sharing her wisdom with the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells. It was no surprise then that, as educated white women began lobbying for women’s suffrage, Terrell lended her hand to the cause.
Unfortunately, there was racism and dissension even amongst the civic groups that fought for the common goal of women’s suffrage. While Susan B. Anthony and Mary Church Terrell became fast friends in the cause, other suffragist leaders wanted to downplay the involvement of black women. They were afraid that Southern white women would not support women’s suffrage if black women were playing a prominent role, so they tried to segregate the women’s marches and rallies. They asked such driven leaders as Ida B. Wells, who worked tirelessly to stop lynching in the South, to march with black women in the back rather than with the other, white leaders. Wells refused.
Another racist element hurt the women’s suffrage cause. For years, many activists had been trying to gain suffrage for black men—certainly an important fight. However, women’s suffragists were told to wait so that black men could get their votes first. Activists were afraid that Congress would never allow for both black men and the female gender being able to vote all at once. And so, technically, black men did go first. They were given the vote with the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, but voting suppression, arrests, racist state laws, and intimidation would keep most black men from the polls until the 1960’s.
The women kept fighting, dividing into different civic groups (sometimes racially diverse, sometimes not) over time. Even as many Southern women actually opposed women’s suffrage, women from West Tennessee were represented in the fight. One such woman, Sue Shelton White, even did jail time for the cause. She burned a photo of Woodrow Wilson right outside of the White House, which took guts at a time when tensions against progressive women and people of color were at a fever pitch.
Shelton White would quickly become used to breaking past barriers. She was born in Henderson, Tennessee, but eventually moved to Jackson, where she worked as a court reporter for the Tennessee Supreme Court. Before long, Shelton White would join the radical National Woman’s Party, led by prominent suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. She organized this Party to tour through Tennessee, raising awareness and gathering support from like-minded women. It was when Shelton White moved to Washington, D.C. to campaign on the frontlines that she and Gabrielle Harris burned Wilson’s picture in effigy and were subsequently thrown in jail.
You would think after a jarring experience like jail time that maybe Shelton White would lay low for a bit afterward. Instead, she charted a railroad car that she christened the “Prison Special” and continued spreading the word throughout the United States. Even after women did gain the right to vote in 1920, when her native state of Tennessee made the right choice and became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, Shelton White returned to Tennessee to be the first female lawyer in the entire state. She never stopped making waves and proving that women were just as ready to enact political change as men. In fact, you can see a bust of Shelton White, made by local Jackson artist Wanda Stanfill, at the Jackson City Plaza. We get to honor her today for the work that she did so many years go. Local women made history so that we can go to our respective voting precincts and make decisions about our governments.
The women who shaped history before us gave you and me the right to vote. I am eternally grateful for the work that they did, to make such progress possible for women they would never meet. Sue Shelton White once said, “If you stand in your accepted place today, it is because some woman had to fight yesterday. We should be ashamed to stand on ground won by women in the past without making an effort to honor them by winning a higher and wider field for the future. It is a debt we owe.”
We have to make this world a better place for the women of the present and the women of the future. It’s our duty as both women and men to battle against slavery, racism, sexism, and violence. Things can only get better if more of us stand up and take action. We can choose to vote in local and national elections, contact our leaders, and donate to and volunteer with organizations like WRAP and RIFA. Whether we make a big or small difference, we may change one woman’s life for the better. I want to be remembered in the way that the Mary Poppins song “Sister Suffragette” talks about the suffragists:
So, cast off the shackles of yesterday!
Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!
Our daughters’ daughters will adore us
And they’ll sing in grateful chorus
“Well done! Well done!
Well done, Sister Suffragette!”
Sources for Further Reading
Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony In Her Own Words. Anthony, Susan B., and Lynn Sherr. New York: Times Books, 1995.
Fradin, Dennis Brindell, and Judith Bloom Fradin. Fight On!: Mary Church Terrell’s Battle For Integration. New York: Clarion Books, 2003.
Harlem’s Glory: Black Women Writing, 1900-1950. Ed. Randolph, Ruth Elizabeth, and Lorraine Elena Roses. London: Harvard University Press, 1996.
History of Woman Suffrage. Ed. Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, et al. New York: Arno Pess/New York Times, 1969.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. New York: Random House, 2007.
Madison County Election Commission. madisoncountytn.gov. www.madisoncountytn.gov/150/Election-Commission.
Votes For Women! The Woman Suffrage Movement In Tennessee, The South, and The Nation. Ed. Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1995.
“Women’s Suffrage: Tennessee and the Passage of the 19th Amendment.” sos.tn.gov. Tennessee Secretary of State: 2017. sos.tn.gov/products/tsla/womens-suffrage-tennessee-and-passage-19th-amendment.
Originally from Medon, Tennessee, Olivia Chin is the Circulation Manager at the Union University Library. Her best Halloween costumes (so far) have been David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. Her favorite hobbies include drinking local coffee, reading true crime novels, and going to emo concerts with her husband.