On April 14, 1919, Tennessee women were granted the right to vote in presidential and municipal elections only. There was no earthquake recorded, and the South did not sink into moral decline as a result, as many anti-suffragists predicted.
The legislation had passed in the House on April 3 and in the Senate on April 14. It was signed into law by Gov. A.H. Roberts on April 17, 1919, and championed by the preceding governor, Thomas Rye, who proclaimed his support in 1917.
Rye said, “I can see no reason why our women are not entitled to the privilege they ask at the hands of their representatives and desire to express the hope that due consideration may be given their requests.”
Earlier attempts at limited suffrage had failed in 1883 and in 1917, so suffragists were elated with the passage of Chapter No. 139, House Bill No. 717 which stated:
“AN ACT granting women the right to vote for electors of President and Vice-President of the United States, and for municipal officers; to participate and vote in certain matters and elections; and prescribing the qualifications and conditions under which women may exercise such right of suffrage.”
This partial suffrage victory occurred two months before the 19th Amendment finally passed Congress on June 4, 1919.
The first woman to legally vote in Tennessee, Mary Cordelia “Aunt Cord” Beasley Hudson, was from Camden in Benton County and she prized her right to vote. According to the Tennessee State Library and Archives, a municipal election was held in Camden on Tuesday, April 22, a week after the partial suffrage bill became law. Mrs. Hudson, who had joined the suffrage movement in 1918, cast her vote and was quick to point out that she voted for the winner of the election, A. V. Bowls.
A 1919 Nashville Banner article had this to say about Mayor Bowls:
“His Honor, the mayor of Camden, is proud almost to boasting of having had his cause championed by the women of his town. And he is proud to the point of being ‘puffed up’ in having been the first man in Tennessee to have been elected when women participated in the election.”
Extensive organizing and hard work preceded her vote. Renowned suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt devised the “Winning Plan” which organized suffragists to pursue voting at the state level. The rationale was that with the states granting some form of suffrage to women, it was more likely that federal legislators would support the passage of a federal amendment.
Thus, the strategy to achieve woman suffrage was two-fold: work for partial suffrage in the states and press for a federal amendment. Legislators who resisted supporting the federal suffrage amendment could more easily accept partial suffrage which is what happened in Tennessee. Rep. Joseph Hanover of Memphis argued eloquently and voted for limited suffrage in 1919. He also led the House’s pro-suffrage efforts in 1920.
Other states which granted limited suffrage to women by 1919 were:
Illinois (1913); Nebraska (1917); Ohio (1917); Indiana (1917); North Dakota (1917); Rhode Island (1917); Iowa (1919); Maine (1919); Minnesota (1919); Missouri (1919); Wisconsin (1919).
Paula F. Casey and Jacque Hillman are co-founders of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail – www.tnwomansuffrageheritagetrail.com