The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote

by Elaine Weiss

Clock Icon 17 minute read

Chapter 1
...To Nashville

Carrie Chapman Catt had spent a long night, day, and early evening on trains clattering over a thousand miles of track from New York City to Nashville. In the hours she wasn't reading field reports and legal documents, rimless eyeglasses perched on her nose, she read the newspapers and indulged in the guilty pleasure of a detective novel.

By the time the train pulled into Nashville in the dusky twilight, it was hard to make out the copper-and-bronze statue of the messenger god Mercury perched atop the Union Station tower, greeting travelers to the bustling capital city. Minerva, the warrior goddess, might have been a more fitting figure for the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Susan B. Anthony's anointed heir, the supreme commander of its great suffrage army, the woman they called "the Chief." Carrie Catt had been summoned to lead her troops into the fray one last time. At least she dearly hoped this might be the last time.

She'd already devoted half of her life to the Cause, three decades of constant work and travel. Her hair was silver and wavy, and she wore it short and brushed close, parted in the center, easy to groom on the run. Her face, once angular and strikingly handsome, was fleshier now. Her heavy eyelids drooped a bit, and the line of her jaw had softened, but she retained the same sly, thin-lipped smile, piercing blue eyes, and arched eyebrows that made her look either surprised, amused, or annoyed depending upon how she deployed them. She was definitely not amused this evening; she was worried, and she wasn't sure she could take the strain much longer.

It was Catt's job-more precisely, her life's mission-to guide American women to the promised land of political freedom, securing for them the most basic right of democracy, the vote. For more than seventy years, since that first audacious meeting in Seneca Falls in 1848, generations of her suffrage sisters had faced public disdain, humiliation, rotten eggs, violent opposition, and prison as they petitioned, campaigned, lobbied, marched, and pleaded for their simple rights as citizens. Now the promise of the franchise, so long delayed, was within sight; the political emancipation of half of the United States' citizens was at stake. And here, of all places, where she'd never imagined it possible, in the South, in Nashville.Tennessee could become the elusive thirty-sixth state to ratify the federal woman suffrage amendment. Or it could end the quest in failure.

The Tennessee legislature would soon be called into special session to vote on ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, popularly called "the Susan B. Anthony Amendment," one simple sentence stating that a citizen's right to vote could not be denied on account of sex. Nothing revolutionary, to Carrie Catt's mind. It was really just a clarification, an essential correction, of the Founding Fathers' damned shortsightedness.

Just over a year earlier, in June 1919, the amendment had finally been pushed through both houses of the U.S. Congress-after forty years of willful delay. Catt had kicked up her heels and broken into a wild dance when that news arrived. The amendment then moved to the states for ratification. She knew it would be a tough slog: suffragists had to convince at least thirty-six state legislatures—three-quarters of the forty-eight states in the Union-to accept the amendment, while those opposed needed just thirteen states to vote it down and kill it. The ratification campaign proved even slower and uglier than Catt expected; she had been sure it would be over by now, but it wasn't. By midsummer 1920, thirty-five states had ratified the amendment, eight had rejected, three were refusing to consider; North Carolina and Tennessee were still up in the air, but North Carolina was a sure bet to reject. That left only Tennessee as a possible thirty-sixth state.

If the Tennessee legislature could be persuaded, pressured, cajoled, and coerced (all these techniques would be needed, Catt was certain) to ratify the amendment, suffrage would become federal law, allowing every woman, in every state, to vote in all elections. Victory at last, hallelujah, and just in time for the upcoming presidential election.

But if Tennessee did not ratify, derailing the full enfranchisement of twenty-seven million women before the fall elections, all might be lost. The momentum was stalling after several state legislatures had voted down ratification this past spring and summer. Although the "No" votes in Georgia and Louisiana had surprised no one—nearly every southern state of the old Confederacy had rejected the amendment—the loss in more moderate, mid-Atlantic Delaware was a shock. A defeat in Tennessee, which enjoyed stronger suffrage sympathies and deeper organization than the other southern states, would allow the forces against suffrage to gain strength, new legal obstacles to be thrown into the path, men to forget what women had contributed to the Great War effort, women to lose heart. That crucial sense of inevitability, the public assumption that to support woman suffrage was simply to keep in step with the march of progress, was faltering. And that infuriating question—is America really ready for women to vote, to be equal citizens?-was bubbling up again. Adding to her agitation, the newspapers were filled with the sorts of stories that gave Americans good reason to be in a sour mood.

Even after seventeen million people had been killed in the so-called Great War, the world was still aflame. The Russian Bolsheviks were invading Poland and vowing to advance into Romania and Bulgaria, Latvia, and Lithuania; the Ottoman Turks were fighting the Greeks while continuing to massacre and deport Armenians; the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin was skirmishing with British troops. Mexico was spiraling into civil war again; factions were battling in China. The premise, trumpeted by so many posters and in so many parades, that American men had fought and died in the War to End All Wars looked to be a fake.

Even the peace seemed chimerical: the negotiations at Paris had dragged on for months, and the U.S. Senate had recently refused to accept the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, objecting to President Wilson's plan for a League of Nations to settle international disputes. Americans wanted nothing more to do with foreign entanglements. Catt thought the league was the only good thing to come out of the horrible war; she'd written and spoken in its favor and was disgusted by the backlash against it.

The war had brought neither the peace nor the prosperity the nation had been promised. As Catt's train sped toward Nashville, streetcar workers were striking in Chicago, coal miners were stuck in long, bloody lockouts in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Illinois, garment workers were threatening in New Jersey. There'd been nationwide steel mill, coal, railroad, and shipbuilding strikes in 1919—more than two thousand strikes around the country-while race riots had erupted in many cities. The postwar economic recession had now deepened into a full-blown depression. National Prohibition, which Catt had supported as a way to protect women and children from alcohol-fueled abuse, was only adding to the climate of violence, as federal agents pulled their enforcement shotguns on backwoods moonshiners and city bootleggers while mobsters jockeyed for turf with machine guns.

Anarchists were taking advantage of the turmoil, and accounts of exploding bombs in mail packages, in cars, and in offices and homes were a staple news item. The government was responding with raids, mass arrests, and deportations of suspected radicals (a pair of Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti had recently been arrested in Massachusetts) authorized by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, whose own home had been bombed the year before. The "Palmer Raids" were executed by his ambitious young assistant J. Edgar Hoover, who'd begun keeping secret files on those who questioned or criticized the government, anyone who wasn't a "Good American." Carrie Catt was also being watched.

And every day this summer there was another article about a cheeky fellow in Boston named Charles Ponzi, who had convinced thousands of people to give him their money with promises of too-good-to-be-true investment returns: double your money in ninety days. Ponzi's clever pyramid scheme was definitely too good to be true, and he would soon be under arrest. Even the national pastime, baseball, was under a cloud of suspicion: rumors were circulating that several Chicago White Sox players had deliberately made bad plays to throw the 1919 World Series in exchange for cash from gamblers. All this only added to the national dyspepsia; Americans felt as if they'd been fed too many lies, taken for chumps one too many times.

The newly minted presidential candidates had quickly picked up on the zeitgeist. Republican nominee Warren Harding was already talking about a return to "normalcy" and "America First," which Catt understood meant a retreat from progressive ideas and a slide back to comfortable, conservative policies. Democrat James Cox was carefully hedging his bets on everything. If the amendment didn't pass now, before the election, before the nation swung into an isolationist, reactionary frame of mind, it might never pass at all.

Miss Josephine Pearson was dusty from the soot flying into her trainÕs open windows and a bit stiff from the hard wooden-slat seat, but she didnÕt mind the discomforts. Pearson had received a telegram earlier that Saturday afternoon at her home in Monteagle, a hamlet perched high on Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau.

"Mrs. Catt arrived. Our forces are being notified to rally at once. Send orders-and come immediately." She was to take command in Nashville.

The summons thrilled her. As president of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage and also head of the state division of the Southern Women's League for the Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, Josephine was the proud leader of the Tennessee Antis. Now the fight had come home to her Volunteer State. This would be Tennessee's time of trial and, she prayed, triumph. With God's help, it would meet the challenge of beating back the scourge of woman suffrage, holding fast against the feminist epidemic sweeping the nation and now threatening her home. This was her crusade and this was her moment.

She was fifty-two years old, and all of her training—college, graduate degrees, and her years as an educator—had prepared her for this mission. She knew she was doing God's will, fulfilling a sacred vow to her beloved mother, who had understood the dangers of female suffrage, how it mocked the plan of the Creator, undermined women's purity and the noble chivalry of men, and threatened the home and the family.The Bible said a woman's place was in the home, as loving wife and mother, not in the dirty realm of politics, not in the polling booth or in the jury box, where her delicate sensibilities could be assaulted, her morals sullied and even corrupted. Her men knew what was best for her, would protect and cherish her, make laws and decisions for her benefit. Pearson felt there was no need to question the wisdom of Tennessee men or Tennessee laws.

But the threat went beyond this. Woman suffrage could upend the supremacy of the white race and the southern way of life. After the brutal disruptions of the Civil War and the upheavals of Reconstruction-when black men were allowed to vote (and some were even elected to the legislature) but former Confederate soldiers were considered traitors and stripped of their voting rights-the southern states had finally achieved a degree of equilibrium, in terms of restoring racial and political relations, the Pearson family believed. Jim Crow laws kept blacks in their place. But if a federal amendment mandated suffrage for all women, that would mean black women, too. Then Washington could demand that black men be allowed to vote, and that was totally unacceptable.

Barely a week before Mother had died in the summer of 1915, in the library of their house on the Methodist Assembly grounds in Monteagle (Father was a retired Methodist minister), Amanda Pearson had grasped Josephine's hand and implored: "Daughter, when I'm gone—if the Susan B. Anthony Amendment issue reaches Tennessee—promise me, you will take up the opposition, in My Memory!" Josephine bent to kiss her mother's brow, to impress the vow upon her forehead, and answered: "Yes, God helping, I'll keep the faith, Mother!"

So when the telegram arrived late Saturday afternoon, it was with a sense of holy purpose that Josephine Pearson quickly packed her travel case, walked from her house to the Monteagle depot, and bought a one-way ticket for the late train to Nashville.

Even before Josephine made the vow to her mother, she had come to the conclusion that suffrage was a dangerous idea; she arrived at this judgment by what she considered empirical and scholarly investigation, as befitted a woman with higher education and intellectual accomplishments. Early in her career she served as a high school principal and went on to teach English and history at Nashville College for Young Ladies and Winthrop State Normal College for Women in South Carolina. In 1909, she assumed the position of dean and chair of philosophy at Christian College in Columbia, Missouri, at a time when Missourians were debating a woman suffrage measure.

She found she often fell into argument with her colleagues and students about woman suffrage and was frequently the sole naysayer at the faculty table. She began to feel isolated, shunned for her resistance against the popular political tide. She came to resent her faculty colleagues who snubbed her and used their positions to coerce their impressionable students with their terrible suffrage ideas. During semester breaks, Josephine undertook her own version of field research to determine whether women in those few western states where females already had the right to vote, such as Wyoming, were really better off for having the franchise. She collected her own data and conducted interviews and came to the conclusion that suffrage had exposed women to the filth of politics without improving their lives at all. She began to give lectures to antisuffrage audiences and found herself hailed as an Anti leader in the state.

Her academic career in Missouri was cut short in the spring of 1914 by the call to come home to care for her ailing mother, and she returned to Monteagle to nurse her mother and aged father. From her sickbed, Mother continued to write her diatribes against the evils of whiskey and suffrage, and after her death, honoring the vow, Josephine continued the work. She sat at her desk, writing deep into the night, sending her missives to the newspapers in Nashville and Memphis and Chattanooga. The publisher of the Chattanooga Times, Adolph Ochs, was especially welcoming to her antisuffrage proclamations; Ochs's editorial pages, in both his Chattanooga paper and its sister publication, The New York Times, were firmly in her Anti camp. Pearson's dedication was recognized and she was eventually tapped to become president of the Tennessee antisuffragists. And now, like the Confederate generals whose brave exploits had been extolled in her family's parlor, whose names and deeds she knew by heart, she would stand in defense of the South.

“It was her job-more precisely, her life's mission—to guide American women to the promised land of political freedom, securing for them the most basic right of democracy, the vote.”

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