How Tennessee Became the Final Battleground in the Fight for Suffrage

The campaign to extend voting rights to women in the US took more than 70 years, from the Seneca Falls meeting to the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Tennessee became the state that sealed the deal in the summer of 1920. Author Elaine Weiss talked about the battle for 36 state ratifications in promoting her forthcoming book The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote

How did the battle for women’s suffrage all come down to Tennessee?

By 1920 we’re talking about no longer getting resolutions or referenda in the states to allow women to vote state by state. It’s finally come down to an amendment to the Constitution. In January 1918, the House passes the federal amendment, but the Senate refuses to, and it takes another year-and-a-half until World War I is over. It’s in June of 1919 that the Senate finally relents [to consider the amendment]. They actually reject it twice more and then finally June of 1919 it is passed by Congress and it goes through the ratification process. Three-quarters of the states have to approve the amendment. There are 48 states in 1920, so that means 36 states have to approve it.

It goes to the states, and it’s a very difficult process because one of the things that the [U.S.] senators did to make it harder for the suffragists, and very purposefully so, was that they held off their passage of the amendment until it was an off-year in state legislatures. At that time, most state legislatures did not work around the calendar. Lots of governors didn’t want to call special sessions. But there’s a Supreme Court decision around this time that says amending the Constitution has its own laws and they take precedence over any state Constitutional law. The legislature has to convene to confront whatever amendment comes down to them.

Since ten states had already rejected the ratification, every remaining vote counted dearly. All in all, the fight was much dirtier than we ever learned in school. Read about the final push for the 19th Amendment at Smithsonian.

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