Tennessee State Library and Archives

“Remember the Ladies!”: Women Struggle for an Equal Voice

introduction | the beginning | the struggle | the payoff

The Payoff

After the 19th Amendment was ratified in Tennessee, women also began occupying seats in the Tennessee General Assembly.  The first woman to be elected to the Tennessee State Legislature was Anna Lee Worley.  In a special election on January 25, 1921, she was elected to the Tennessee Senate.  She succeeded her husband in representing Sullivan and Hawkins counties.

In 1923, Marion Griffin became the first woman to hold a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives.  She represented Shelby county.  Marion Griffin was also the first woman to practice law in the state.  Although she graduated with honors from law school, at a time when it was not required to take the Tennessee State Bar, she was denied admittance to the Bar in 1900 because of her sex.  In 1907, she became the first woman lawyer in the state of Tennessee.

In 1966, Dorothy Lavinia Brown was the first African-American woman elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives.  She represented Nashville during the 85th General Assembly.  “Dr. D” was also the first female African-American surgeon in the Southeast and, in 1956, she became the first single woman to adopt a child in Tennessee.

In 1990, Thelma Harper was the first African-American woman elected to the Tennessee Senate, where she still serves representing Nashville.

In 1932, Willa McCord Blake Eslick became the first woman to represent Tennessee in the U. S. House of Representatives.  She served the remainder of her husband’s term after he suffered a heart attack & died on the floor of the House while delivering a speech in support of the soldiers’ bonus bill.  She did not qualify for nomination according to state law & was, therefore, ineligible for reelection.

There has never been a woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Tennessee.  No woman of non-European descent has been elected to the U. S. House or Senate from Tennessee.

Woman Suffrage Memorial in the Tennessee Capitol, 2008, Photograph by William M. Thomas

Woman Suffrage Memorial in the Tennessee Capitol, 2008, Photograph by William M. Thomas

Alan LeQuire created both the Woman Suffrage Memorial in Knoxville and the Woman Suffrage Memorial at the Tennessee Capitol.  He is a renowned sculptor whose public commissions can be seen throughout the southeast.  In addition to the women’s suffrage memorial at the capitol, his work can be seen all over Nashville including at the Parthenon (Athena Parthenos) and the Music Row roundabout (Musica).

Anne Dallas Dudley Historical Marker, 2008, Exhibits Committee Photograph
The Anne Dallas Dudley historical marker is located on West End Ave. near 26th Ave. in Nashville.
Suffrage Historical Marker, 2008, Photograph by William M. Thomas Suffrage Historical Marker, 2008, Photograph by William M. Thomas
The Suffrage historical marker is located in front of the Hermitage Hotel on 6th Ave. in Nashville.

Felicia Grundy Porter Voter Registrations, 1939-1944, Felicia Grundy Porter Papers

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Felicia Grundy Porter Voter Registrations, 1939-1944, Felicia Grundy Porter Papers
Women have been the majority of eligible voters since 1964.  It was not until 1980, however, that more women voted than men.  In 2000, according to the U. S. Census Bureau, there were roughly 98 million women eligible to vote in the November elections.  Of those 98 million, only 69 million were registered to vote and only 59 million actually voted.  In 2004, ca. 103 million women were eligible to vote but only 67 of the 76 million women registered to vote actually did so. In the 2006 Congressional elections, there were ca. 105 million women eligible to vote, while 51 of the 72 million women registered to vote did so.

Tennessee League of Women Voters Fair Booth, n.d., League of Women Voters of Tennessee Papers
The League of Women Voters was formed in 1920 by Mary Chapman Catt at the last meeting of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.  The purpose of the League, along with its various chapters in every state, is to educate voters as well as to advocate for specific issues.  Part of both of these functions is attempts to also increase voter turnout, especially among women.

Although the ratification of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, it did not protect them from other legal and social forms of discrimination.  Alice Paul believed that another amendment guaranteeing equal rights was necessary.  In 1923, she introduced the “Lucretia Mott Amendment” at the ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention.  It read: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”  It was introduced during every session of Congress until it was reworded and passed on March 22, 1972, when the Senate adopted House Joint Resolution 208.  The new amendment read: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

House Joint Resolution 371, April 4, 1972, Tennessee House Joint Resolutions

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House Joint Resolution 371, April 4, 1972, Tennessee House Joint Resolutions
With the adoption of House Joint Resolution 208 by the U. S. Senate, the Equal Rights Amendment was sent to the state legislatures for ratification.  Article V of the U. S. Constitution requires that an amendment be ratified by three quarters of the state legislatures, so 38 states were needed for the Equal Rights Amendment to be ratified.  HJR 208 also set a seven year time limit for ratification.  22 states ratified the amendment in 1972, 8 in 1973, 3 in 1974, 1 in 1975, and 1 in 1977.  Tennessee ratified the Equal Rights Amendment with the passage of House Joint Resolution 371 on April 4, 1972.
Memorandum from the League of Women Voters of the United States urging local League chapters to work for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in their respective state legislatures, May 22, 1972, League of Women Voters of Tennessee Papers

Memorandum from the League of Women Voters of the United States urging local League chapters to work for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in their respective state legislatures, May 22, 1972, League of Women Voters of Tennessee Papers

Phyllis Schlafly was one of the driving forces behind the organized opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment.  Schlafly made two unsuccessful bids for Congress in 1952 and 1970.  She was briefly a member of the John Birch Society.  In 1972, she founded the Eagle Forum and organized the “Stop the ERA” movement.  By the time she had organized opposition to the ERA, 30 states had already ratified the amendment.  5 more states subsequently ratified it, but Schlafly and the “Stop the ERA” movement were effective in preventing its ratification by the necessary 38 states.

Senate Joint Resolution 29, April 23, 1974, Tennessee Senate Resolutions and Senate Joint Resolutions

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Senate Joint Resolution 29, April 23, 1974, Tennessee Senate Resolutions and Senate Joint Resolutions
The initial pace of ratification slowed as opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment mounted.  Though 35 states ratified the amendment, 5 states later rescinded their ratification.  Those states were: Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee, and South Dakota.  Tennessee did so with the adoption of Senate Joint Resolution 29 on April 23, 1974.

In October 1978, with the deadline for ratification fast approaching, Congress, by simple majority, passed a 39 month extension for ratification.  In 1979, the State of Idaho filed suit in federal district court seeking both to uphold the constitutionality of its rescission and to question the constitutionality of the extension.  The district court ruled in favor of the State of Idaho and the case was appealed all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court.  On October 2, 1982, the Supreme Court delivered its opinion in National Organization for Women v. Idaho (459 U.S. 809).  Since even the extended deadline had passed without the necessary 38 states ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled that the issues regarding the constitutionality of the deadline extension and of the rescissions were, in effect, moot.

Letter from Representative Fleming to Fran Byrne on the adoption of SJR 29, April 24, 1974, League of Women Voters of Tennessee Papers Letter from Representative Fleming to Fran Byrne on the adoption of SJR 29, April 24, 1974, League of Women Voters of Tennessee Papers
Representative Fleming was the prime sponsor of HJR 371.  Fran Byrne was the president of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee.
Letter from Governor Winfield Dunn to Fran Byrne on the adoption of SJR 29, May 7, 1974, League of Women Voters of Tennessee Papers Letter from Governor Winfield Dunn to Fran Byrne on the adoption of SJR 29, May 7, 1974, League of Women Voters of Tennessee Papers