Whether women finally got the vote depended on Tennessee.
That was the final battleground in the passage of the 19th Amendment. Elaine Weiss examines the drama and the people fighting for and against suffrage in “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote” (Viking, 2018, $28).
Ms. Weiss will discuss her book at 3 p.m. Nov. 3 during a UCSB Arts & Lectures talk at the university’s Campbell Hall.
Ratification of the 19th Amendment required 35 states, and legislatures in 34 of the 48 states backed the amendment in the period examined by Ms. Weiss’ book. Twelve states either rejected the amendment or refused to vote on it. The only state remaining to vote was Tennessee.
“I tell the story of what happens in Nashville (the state capital) in the summer of 1920 when Tennessee became the last possible state to ratify the amendment,” Ms. Weiss told the News-Press recently by phone from her home in Baltimore.
“If the Tennessee legislature does not pass it, the amendment is probably not going to get ratified for the foreseeable future,” said Ms. Weiss, an award-winning journalist who has written for the New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s and other major publications. “It’s like the O.K. Corral.
“It’s the last stand. And all the forces converge on Nashville — the suffrage forces, the anti-suffrage forces, the corporate lobbyists and the politicians because it’s in the middle of a big presidential campaign,” said Ms. Weiss, who earned a graduate degree in journalism in 1974 at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Opponents of the 19th Amendment varied from politicians to liquor companies, railroad companies and racists who didn’t want black women to vote.
“This is the last stand, so anything goes,” Ms. Weiss said. “People are willing to do anything to win. That’s why it gets so crazy, which makes for a great story.”
She said desperate anti-suffragists resorted to bribery to convince men in the Legislature to vote against the amendment.
“There is a speakeasy, a suite of rooms in a hotel where everyone is staying, where liquor is dispensed 24/7 to get the legislators drunk and convince them to vote against ratification,” Ms. Weiss said.
She said opponents sent telegrams to pro-suffrage legislators to get them out of Nashville and away from the vote. They lied to lawmakers and told them their house was on fire, their child was sick or their wife was dying.
“You’d better jump on a train and go home,” Ms. Weiss said.
“There’s a whole bunch of actors in this who feel a personal stake and are willing to bend the rules a lot to try to get their way,” she said.
Ms. Weiss said the drama built until the ratification came down to one lawmaker’s vote.
She said her book explains how supporters of the suffrage won. Outside forces played a role.
“We think of women’s suffrage as a little bubble. It’s not,” Ms. Weiss said. “It’s affected by political and social and economic forces. I think that’s part of what makes the book so interesting.
“Suffrage is affected by not only history but the politics of the time and social attitudes,” she said. “The suffragists have to play a very complicated game, and they have to be vigilant.”
It took three generations of women, starting with advocates Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) and Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), to campaign for suffrage. Stanton and Mott were at the 1848 Seneca Falls, N.Y., convention that launched the movement.
Ms. Weiss noted that abolitionist Frederick Douglass attended the Seneca gathering and persuaded reluctant participants that women must campaign to get the vote, that it wouldn’t just be given to them or black men such as him.
Ms. Weiss said it took a long time before a historical figure in 1920, President Woodrow Wilson, supported the 19th Amendment. “In the end, he is an advocate because he feels women might save his legacy.”
Supporters of the amendment argued that women wouldn’t gain their rights if they couldn’t elect their representatives, Ms. Weiss said. “They have no right to divorce a husband or prosecute an abusive husband. They don’t have the right to keep their children if they leave a marriage.
“A woman enters a marriage, and she loses all her rights to property,” Ms. Weiss said. “Even property she may have been given by her family becomes her husband’s. She loses everything. She has no rights and no recourse.”
Despite that reality, some women opposed the 19th Amendment, Ms. Weiss said. “There were women who were socially, politically or religiously conservative who found it went against God’s plan, that it would disrupt the family, that it would undermine a woman’s morals and her delicate nature. There were all kinds of arguments used, and I explore them (in the book).”
Although she didn’t actively oppose the amendment, Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t support it either, the author said.
“Women in her social standing felt they did not need the vote,” Ms. Weiss said. “And Uncle Teddy (Theodore Roosevelt) was in the White House. She could get her ideas across directly to him.”
In fact, Eleanor Roosevelt declined to cast a ballot when New York state approved the vote for women in 1917. (Some states such as New York and California gave women the right to vote before women across the country became franchised through the 19th Amendment.)
“She (Roosevelt) will soon see the errors of her way and will join the League of Women’s Voters,” Ms. Weiss said. “She becomes a very politically active woman.”
Ms. Weiss said the suffrage movement set the stage for 20th- and 21st-century civil rights campaign that used many of the same tactics, including marches and legal test cases for the Supreme Court. “All of these were pioneered by the suffragists.”