On This Day in Nashville: August 18th 1920

One of the most important days in Nashville history happened on August 18, 1920 when the Tennessee Legislature was the 36th and final state to ratify the 19th Amendment giving 27 million women across the United State the right to vote. This long hard battle started in Nashville when Anne Dallas Dudley established the Nashville Equal Suffrage League in 1911. Dudley organized and led the first woman’s suffrage parades in the south in 1914, 1915 and 1916 leading over 900 women from the Tennessee State Capitol  down Capitol Boulevard (now renamed Anne Dallas Dudley Blvd.) through the streets of downtown.

Businesses were decorated in suffrage yellow banners and Votes for Women signs and women who could not get off work dropped yellow roses from buildings above as the parade passed. The Mayor Hillary Howse declared a half day holiday for the parade and the Nashville Police Department escorted the women on the parade all the way to Centennial Park.

Dudley spoke to a crowd of over 1,000 gathered at Centennial Park and local newspapers said it was the first time in Tennessee History that a woman had spoken to a large crowd which was outdoors. Dudley who was a popular Nashvillian and socialialite was the leader of the movement in Nashville. Based on the success of the 1914 parade Dudley invited the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association to hold their annual convention in Nashville later that year.

It was improbable that the NAWSA would hold their convention in Tennessee a state they did not see as a pro suffrage state but Dudley had motion picture movie reels made of her parade and this impressed the national leaders. In November 1920 the organization held their convention in Nashville with over 900 women delegates attending. The women stayed at the Hermitage Hotel and the day sessions were held at the Tennessee State Capitol in the House of Representative Chamber where six year later on August 18, 1920 the final historic vote occured. The evening sessions were held in the Ryman Auditorium. 

In 1920 the 19th Amendment was close to reaching 36 states in the summer but many states refused to vote or voted no leaving the fate of the long proposed amendment to Tennessee. Governor Albert Roberts who was in a tough reelection primary refused to call the Legislature back into session. When President Woodrow Wilson sent Governor Roberts a personal telegram urging him to support the amendment and call the Legislature back in session the Governor summended the House and Senate back to Nashville in August of 1920.

While the Senate overwhelmingly passed the bill, the House was much closer and its passage was uncertain.. Dudley and her team of Tennessee women were in charge of lobbying to get the amendment passed. The out of state women knew their presence would hurt the efforts and they all stayed away from the Capitol during the debate including Carrie Chapman Catt the leader of the NAWSA who took over as President after the death of Susan B. Anthony in 1906.

On August 18, 1920 the hopes and dreams of millions of women came down to the all male legislature of the Tennessee House of Representatives. There was one more no vote than yes so it looked unlikely that Tennessee would be the final state for the amendment to succeed.  That morning Harry Burn the youngest member of the Legislature who was 24 years old and a no vote was delivered a handwritten letter just prior to the vote.

The letter which he read at his wooden desk on the floor of the House Chamber urged Harry to vote for the amendment and was written by his mother. When the roll was called, Harry boldly changed his vote to a yes and the 19th Amendment was ratified by one vote on August 18, 1920.

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