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Women's Suffrage (Special Collections)

Introduction

The passage of the 19th amendment radically redefined American democracy by no longer denying the right to vote on the basis of sex. This was a success for the many women a part of the suffrage movement who had been writing, speaking, protesting, lobbying, and demanding equality; but this was also a milestone that had been hard-fought by the generations of women who came before them. Historians often point to two events as the beginning of the women's suffrage movement in America: first, the 1840 World's Anti-Slavery Convention in London (women had been very active in the abolitionist movement, and this event in particular included a debate over whether women could attend), and second, the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Women, however, had been discussing and debating their roles and rights in society ever since America declared independence from Great Britain.

While the women’s suffrage movement is often described as just that – a singular movement working toward a common goal – the journey to suffrage was a complicated one. During the time of this crusade, many women were working toward several reforms, not just voting equality. Among suffragists, class and racial divisions permeated organizations, while differing ideologies and methods split apart groups. All the while, there were factions of women who did not believe in the cause at all and even fought against it.

Tennessee played a critical role in the passage of the 19th amendment as it was the 36th and final state to ratify it. Leading up to this milestone, women across the state had been finding their voice and pushing for change for decades. While the passage of the amendment drastically increased voting rights, many restrictions still applied, especially to people of color. Many women continued the fight as this was but one victory in a long, ongoing campaign for equal rights.

This exhibition guide aims to highlight a few interesting stops along the long journey to suffrage, looking at some of the building blocks to the women's suffrage movement as well as Tennessee's role in seeing a dream for so many realized. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th amendment, explore the efforts of diverse and resilient women who fought for change to uplift their communities.

It is important to note that many courageous yet unnamed and unrecorded women were - and are - critical to the fight for women's suffrage and equality. While this guide showcases material available to learn more about this movement, its beginnings, and its aftermath, it is crucial to reflect upon what is not available and who has not been recorded.