Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, November 8, 2019

Celebrating Chattanooga’s suffragettes

Events set to mark city’s role in securing women’s right to vote

Chattanooga, with a population of almost 58,000, was Tennessee’s fourth-largest city in 1920, but it played an outsized role back then in ensuring that women across the country gained the right to vote. Chattanooga and Hamilton County will mark that history and the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment next year in community events that residents can help create and plan right now.

“I don’t think (students today) fully understand the marching and legislative lobbying that had to take place” for women to be able to vote, says Linda Moss Mines, historian for Chattanooga and Hamilton County and retired chair of the history and social sciences department at Chattanooga’s Girls Preparatory School.

She, along with attorney Marcy Eason of the Miller & Martin law firm and Lynda Minks Hood, executive director of the Chattanooga Bar Association, will lead the Chattanooga and Hamilton Yellow Rose Centennial Committee. They were named to head the committee by Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke.

The committee will work to educate and engage people to connect with the history of the 19th Amendment and honor the women who worked to make it possible for women to vote, Hood and Mines say.

Along with monthly events and activities, the committee is working toward what Mines and Hood call rebranding a small downtown park at Georgia and McCallie Avenues as Suffrage Park, complete with a sculpture depicting Chattanooga women’s suffrage leaders. Additional details and fundraising plans are in the works.

The 19th Amendment and Tennessee are linked in history: Women probably wouldn’t have been able to vote in the 1920 presidential election if Tennessee hadn’t been the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

That amendment provided: “The right of any citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” There were 48 states in 1920. For a constitutional amendment to take effect, three-fourths of the states – 36 – would have to ratify the amendment.

The political wrangling over women’s suffrage was called the Tennessee war of the roses. Tennesseans could identify a man’s political leanings by the color of the rose in his lapel, Mines and Hood say. If he pulled out a red rose and popped in the yellow rose, it meant the person had changed from opposing women’s suffrage to supporting it.

A Chattanooga woman, Abby Crawford Milton, fought for suffrage in the summer of 1920 during a special session of the state Legislature called to take up the 19th Amendment.

“The battle for women’s suffrage that summer, that very hot summer of 1920, that occurred in Nashville is generously conceded to be the fiercest legislative battle that ever was waged on this continent,” Milton said in a 1983 interview, when she was 100 years old.

“The Hermitage Hotel … was the scene of many fist fights and swarms of red roses in the lobby there every evening. No woman would dare venture down there. The mezzanine of that hotel had been bought up by the antis. And they served liquor there to the members, all the members they could get drunk. They took our votes away from them with all the men that they could. …” Never mind that Prohibition was in effect then, forbidding the sale of “intoxicating liquors” through the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

Milton was a young mother back then, living in Chattanooga with her newspaper publisher husband and young daughters. She eventually moved to Florida and died in 1993 at age 110. Recordings of her 1983 interview are available online; Nashville historian Carole Stanford Bucy transcribed the recordings and included quotations in her 1996 article “‘The Thrill of History Making’: Suffrage Memories of Abby Crawford Milton” that appeared in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly.

Milton, a well-known Chattanooga suffragist, mentioned and credited several other area women for their work in her 1983 interview. They included Margaret Erwin (later Ford), Catherine Wester, Corrine Power and Ernestine Noa. In addition, she praised the work of Catherine Kenny, who was originally from Chattanooga before moving to Nashville.

Bucy said it’s important to acknowledge how much of the women’s suffrage movement in Tennessee was a group effort, involving both women and pro-suffrage men working together.

The movement was broad-based, bringing together Protestants, Catholics and Jews along with white and black suffragists, she said. African American suffragists included J. Frankie Pierce and Mattie Howard Coleman, M.D., of Nashville.

Anne Dallas Dudley, Catherine Kenny and Kate Burch Warner also were Nashville suffrage leaders, and Lizzie Crozier French of Knoxville worked to advance suffrage.

Anti-suffrage leaders included Mr. and Mrs. John Vertrees of Nashville and Josephine Pearson of Monteagle.

Hood and Mines, serving on the Hamilton County suffrage centennial committee, noted that even though women went to such pains to gain the right to vote 100 years ago, few people actually exercise the right. We “want them to be informed voters and exercise their right (to vote). It’s one of the greatest rights they have,” Mines and Hood explain.

“I couldn’t wait to vote,” Hood recalls. “I voted by absentee ballot the first time I was eligible.” Later, after she married and became a parent, she took her daughter with her to the polls on Election Day.

Hood and Mines agree it’s imperative for parents to teach their children about voting, and children learn best by example.

These activities – and a host of learning opportunities – are in the works for Hamilton County and Chattanooga to mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment:

• February 2020: A celebration of local African American women’s efforts in support of the 19th Amendment. An event tied to Valentine’s Day, tentatively called “Have a Heart for Suffrage,” also is a possibility for February.

• March: Events with area schools in March, including a mini suffrage march for students along a route that Chattanooga suffragists took.

• April: Voter registration drive

• May: Law Day events sponsored by the Chattanooga Bar Association, including an art contest for students. The American Bar Association’s national theme for Law Day 2020 is woman suffrage.

• June: Events involving local community organizations and houses of worship.

• August will include Hamilton County’s biggest celebration because the state Legislature voted to ratify the 19th Amendment in that month in 1920.

Contact any of the three co-chairs to volunteer to work on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment in Chattanooga and Hamilton County.