Nearly a century ago, the right to vote for women in the United States came down to a fierce, six-week battle staged in Nashville, Tennessee. After 72 years of fighting, suffragists from around the country made one last push to pass the 19th amendment.
“In summer 1920, thirty-five states had ratified the 19th amendment to allow women to vote, but one more state was needed to ratify the U.S. Constitution,” said author Elaine Weiss. “If the Tennessee legislature approved it, suffrage would be the law of the land, just in time for the 1920 presidential election in the fall. If it failed in Tennessee, it could be delayed indefinitely, and suffragettes were very worried the movement would be over for their lifetimes.”
This true-history drama is the subject of Weiss’s latest book, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight for the Vote, and the topic she discussed as this year’s featured speaker for the 2019 Hazelett Forum. The 12th annual event was hosted by the Randall L. Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence and supported in part through a grant from Indiana Humanities in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities. At the forum Weiss discussed how the efforts in 1920 constituted the largest expansion of the voting franchise in U.S. history, giving voice to half of the nation’s population. But she says the victory – which still wasn’t extended to minority men and women for several more decades – wasn’t limited to voter rights.
“The 19th amendment was also a cultural shift in the roles and rights of women. It’s a change that is ongoing today,” she said. “It’s one of the defining civil rights struggles in our nation’s history, cutting to the heart of what democracy means: who gets to participate in our government? Who has a voice? When we say ‘we the people,’ who do we really mean? We’re still asking those same questions today.”
Named after local impassioned educator and philanthropist Susie Hazelett, the annual Hazelett Forum is part of the ongoing education series at the Tobias Leadership Center which is focused this year on the history of women’s rights stretching from the Civil War to WWI.
At the time of the battle for the vote in 1920, women were denied access to testify in court, to own property, bring civil suits or even have custodial rights to their own children. Considered “too fragile” to earn an education because “blood flow would be reverted from their ovaries to their brains,” Weiss explained, women were often denied education. But she says Indiana University proved to be the exception by admitting women in 1867.
“IU educated some of the leaders of the state and national suffrage movement,” she said.
In her presentation, Weiss discussed Indiana’s “fascinating but frustrating” role in suffrage, including the pioneering Hoosier women who fought against male lawmaker’s repeated rejection of the 19th amendment. In 1917 the Indiana legislature passed three suffrage bills, including one that gave women partial suffrage in presidential elections – something Weiss calls a stalling tactic.
“The bill passed and tens of thousands of Indiana women rushed to register to vote in summer of 1917. In Columbus, Indiana, the first registered women voters were African American women. In Porter County, 80% of all registered voters were women,” explained Weiss. “But then, the men who opposed women being able to vote challenged the new suffrage laws and the Indiana Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional. Women were stripped of their right to vote just days before the fall election.”
After much time and effort, Indiana ultimately became the 26th state to approve the 19th amendment in a unanimous decision in the House, with only three dissents in the Senate. But on the cusp of victory, Weiss says women faced the most challenging battleground in Tennessee.
“In the summer of 1920, with 35 ratifications in hand, it could just have well been the cusp of defeat because Tennessee was a dangerous place to be staking this last suffrage battle,” said Weiss. “Nearly all the other southern states had rejected the 19th amendment and all for the same rationale: states’ rights. And states did not want black women to vote.”
Opposition came from a variety of directions, including politicians who feared an unpredictable female voter base, clergymen who felt the female vote defied religion and corporations who were concerned that women who could vote would end cheap child labor and promote temperance. Most surprisingly, suggests Weiss, the most passionate anti-suffrage voices came from women themselves.
“Many of these women were social, political and religious conservatives who thought suffrage would bring about a profound shift in gender roles, endanger the American home and bring about what they called the ‘moral collapse of the nation,’” she said. “It’s a reminder that the political debate over women’s suffrage was never just a political debate. It was a social, cultural—and for some, a moral—debate about the role of women in society. It’s a precursor to what we called ‘culture wars’ today, and that’s what made it so emotional, so multi-layered, so difficult and why it took so long.”
Weiss’s presentation at the 2019 Hazelett Forum covered the most powerful voices at the time, the incredible amount of propaganda used in the fight and how Indiana women led a fight that continues today. The same arguments of 1920, Weiss says, are as relevant today as they were a century ago. Weiss closed her discussion by quoting suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt in a letter the 35-year-old wrote upon her return home after the passage of the 19th amendment.
“The vote is the emblem of your equality, women of America, the guarantee of your liberty. That vote of yours has cost millions of dollars and the lives of thousands of women. Women have suffered agony of soul, which you can never comprehend that you and your daughters might inherit political freedom. That vote has been costly. Prize it! The vote is a power, a weapon of offense and defense. A prayer. Use it intelligently, consciously, prayerfully. Progress is calling to you to make no pause. Act.”