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Women's Suffrage (Special Collections)

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

Women's Suffrage Movement

With women gaining more agency in the public sphere, the beginning of the 20th century saw a mass movement fighting for women's suffrage. For many women, gaining the ability to vote was a step toward broader equality. Voting meant having a say in communities and in the nation. Further, having a Constitutional amendment that specifically stated that it was illegal to discriminate based on sex would further support women's status as equals and could bolster other reform movements. Suffragists tirelessly worked to educate both the public and politicians; they tried to persuade women around the country that they deserved the same rights men took for granted. At the same time, they lobbied political leaders for support.

black and white photograph of a women's suffrage rally at UT. Signs say "we want our vote" and some women wear mens clothes.
People participating in a demonstration for women's suffrage.
(Office of the University Historian Collection, AR.0015)

Despite a common goal, it was not a unified fight within the suffrage movement as there were many contrasting campaigns, methods, and factions of supporters. Some suffragists felt that only a Constitutional amendment would suffice, whereas others wanted to fight state by state for voting rights. Some supporters focused their lobbying efforts on the President and Congress while others pressured state politicians. Some believed in moderate, peaceful approaches while others took on aggressive, even violent tactics.

Eventually, two national organizations emerged. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) began in 1890 when two previously competing groups, the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association, joined together. An umbrella organization made up of smaller state and local groups, NAWSA coordinated their efforts and focused its membership on pushing for changes at the state level. In 1913, members of NAWSA who were unhappy with the organization's tactics broke away and formed the National Woman's Party, which prioritized fighting for a Constitutional amendment at the federal level. NWP leaders were heavily influenced by the militant and radical methods of the British suffrage movement. Despite their differences, determined suffragists campaigned, lobbied, lectured, and protested for decades in support of their cause.

The suffrage movement certainly saw opposition, even among women. Some women activists agreed they should have a role in the public sphere, but thought having the right to vote would interfere with their reform and philanthropic work, which they viewed as non-partisan. Many anti-suffragists clung to traditional and religious-rooted beliefs that women should remain in the home and subordinate to men. Additionally, some opposition was rooted in racism; many did not like the suffrage movement's history with the abolitionist movement and did not want to support the cause knowing that it would extend to African-American women.

The suffrage movement was very active in Tennessee. By 1897, ten cities had suffrage societies; these groups met at the Nashville Exposition's Woman's Building to hear speeches by suffrage leaders from nearby states and formed a state association. In 1914, Nashville became the first city in the South to host a suffrage parade and the following year, NAWSA brought their annual convention to the capital city. Several Tennessee women played influential roles in the national suffrage movement:

photograph of a bronze women's suffrage memorial in market square, tennessee of three women in action.
The Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial, located in Knoxville, features Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, Lizzie Crozier French, and Anne Dallas Dudley.
  • Anne Dallas Dudley (1876-1955) was an ardent organizer, speaker, and lobbyist who founded Nashville Equal Suffrage League, served as president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, and as vice-president of NAWSA.
  • Lizzie Crozier French (1851-1926) organized the Knoxville Equal Suffrage Association, served as president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, and as Tennessee chair for the NWP. French extensively lobbied state legislators in Nashville to vote in favor of the 19th amendment.
  • Memphis-based sisters-in-law Lide and Elizabeth Meriwether were early outspoken activists women's equality and rights. Activist, author, and speaker Elizabeth (1824-1916) lobbied for women's suffrage and served as a national officer with NAWSA. She lectured across the country alongside Susan B. Anthony and in 1872, despite it being illegal, registered and voted in the presidential election. Lide (1829-1913) was an early feminist and activist who organized and campaigned for women's suffrage. She formed Tennessee's first suffrage league in Memphis, the Equal Rights Association, in 1889, and was very active with NAWSA. Lide lobbied for many other reforms including prohibition and raising the legal age of consent.
  • Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) was an influential activist who founded and served as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and later was a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Terrell was also active with NAWSA, one of the few African-Americans permitted to attend their meetings.
  • Journalist, feminist, and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) moved to Shelby County in the 1880s. In addition to her groundbreaking journalism exposing racial violence, Wells-Barnett fervently campaigned for women's suffrage.
  • Sue Shelton White (1887-1943) was active with the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association before focusing her efforts with the NWP where she served as Tennessee's chair and editor of the group's newspaper. White continued her political activity following the passage of the 19th amendment as a lawyer and active member of the NWP and the Democratic Party.