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Women's Suffrage (Special Collections)

This research guide presents Special Collections material that demonstrates womens' fight for suffrage.

The Fight Continues

photograph of a crowd of female students protesting for "equal rights for women," and holding peace signs up
Protestors showing support for "equal rights for women."
(Office of the University Historian Collection, AR.0015)

The addition of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was a massive success for suffragists and others who envisioned a democracy that lived up to its name. However, this did not mark the end, but simply a milestone on the journey toward electoral equality. This amendment did not address the many other types of obstacles that many women faced, particularly those from marginalized and minority communities. When the amendment went into effect, Native Americans were not considered U.S. citizens and therefore could not vote; they were granted citizenship in 1924. Black women faced the same voter intimidation tactics that were being used to keep Black men from voting. Not until the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 was it illegal to deny the right to vote based on race. Although great strides have been taken to increase voting equality, beginning with the 19th amendment, voter discrimination and suppression persists even now, making full electoral equality a dream not yet realized.

While the 19th amendment protected women's right to vote, it did not guarantee protection against discrimination in other areas. Legislation like the Equal Rights Amendment, which would deny any discrimination based on sex, remains a reform for which many activists fight. It was first introduced in Congress in 1923, passed the House of Representatives in 1970, passed the Senate in 1972, but failed to ratify. Almost a century after it was first introduced, it continues to hang in limbo.

Following the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, suffrage groups and supporters turned their energies toward issues like voter registration and education. Some began working more closely with politicians on social reform legislation. Many women began seizing the new opportunity to work in politics by running for and holding political office. NAWSA, one of the primary suffrage organizations, evolved into the League of Women Voters which has continuously worked to increase voter participation and supported women entering politics. NWP, another main suffrage organization, turned its focus to the Equal Rights Amendment. Women continue to play a crucial role in creating a more equitable society through these reforms and more.

The papers of activists, politicians, and reform-focused organizations can provide insight into the ongoing crusade of social, political, and economic equality:

 V.E.P (Voter Education Project) News "new bill would end voter registration." "9 blacks win atlanta posts" "145 blacks run for city offices in Mississippi"
Issues of the Voter Education Project's newsletter from 1969.

Wilma Dykeman and James R. Stokely Jr. Papers, 1807-2011 (MS.3800)
Appalachian authors Wilma Dykeman and James R. Stokely Jr. focused many of their works on progressive topics like environmental activism, birth control, and social justice. Together the couple extensively researched and wrote about the Civil Rights movement, and they participated with the Southern Regional Council, an organization promoting racial equality that focused many efforts on voter registration and political awareness. Additionally, for Wilma's work, Tennessee Women: Past and Present (1977), she worked closely with women's rights activist Martha Ragland. This work is documented in their collection of papers.

Estes Kefauver Papers, 1925-1967 (MPA.0144)
Tennessee native Estes Kefauver (1903-1963) served with the U.S. House of Representatives from 1939-1949 and with the Senate from 1949-1963. His papers include subject files that contain correspondence, reports, reference material, and other documents on important subjects related to Kefauver's legislative work including "Civil Rights" and "Equal Rights for Women."

National Organization for Women, Memphis Chapter, Newsletters, 1974 (MS.2890)
Founded in 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) has championed women's rights and equality. These newsletters illustrate the work of the organization's Memphis chapter.