1920 suffrage movement included local women

Published 8:55 am Monday, October 14, 2019

All American women vote today, thanks to Tennessee.

Tennessee was the last state of the then 48 states that could possibly ratify the 19th amendment which granted all American women the right to vote in 1920.

The right to vote (also known as suffrage) is an important part of our democracy. Throughout history, different groups were prevented from taking part in the voting process. At one point, women, people of color, and immigrants could not vote. People without money, property, or an education were also barred from voting.

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On Aug. 18, 1920, state Rep. Harry T. Burn of Niota changed his “no” vote in the Tennessee House of Representatives to “aye.” Tennessee became the 36th and final state needed to pass the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Editorial cartoonists called the state “The Perfect 36” since three-quarters of the states were necessary for ratification. After Tennessee Gov. A.H Roberts signed and sent Tennessee’s ratification papers to Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby issued his proclamation on Aug. 26, which became known as “Women’s Equality Day.” Votes for women became the law of the land.

Burns’ decision ended a 72-year fight to get women to vote. Those efforts included women organizing suffrage groups, lobbying politicians, marching in parades, and hosting protests at the White House.

Some women, including Susan B. Anthony and Knoxville’s Lizzie Crozier French, became well known nationally or statewide for their suffrage work. But the support and work of dozens of other Tennessee women isn’t as well documented.

Among Elizabethton women who were active in the suffrage movement were Sophia Hunter Dixon and Josephine McCracken Dungan.

Sophia was the daughter of Dr. E.E. Hunter and the granddaughter of Dr. Abraham Jobe, both of whom were very involved in Elizabethton civic affairs, local government, and were activists. So, it was only natural that Sophia become active in the suffrage movement. She was married to Harlow Dixon. He and his brothers and parents moved to Elizabethton in 1901 and did business under the name of John T. Dixon Lumber Co.

Sophia moved to Durham, N.C., in later years and lived to be 98 years old.

Josephine Dungan was married to Walter P. Dungan, a son of W.P. Dungan, who built and lived in the “purple” house on Hattie Ave. She, too, was involved in local affairs, especially those of the Methodist Church.

Sophia grew up on Riverside Drive across from the Covered Bridge while Josephine and her husband also lived for a time on Riverside Drive in a house located behind Security Federal.

Mrs. Virginia Laws, one of Elizabethton’s oldest citizens, remembers both Josephine and Sophia. “They were very prominent women in the community as were their families. They were cultured and refined, and I can see them being part of the suffrage movement,” she shared.

An excerpt from Frank Merritt’s “Later History of Carter County,” notes that in October 1917, women enrolled names at the local post office to “pledge themselves in the great effort for defense of this country.” President Wilson “has declared for suffrage,” asking all states to give women the right to vote.

Another item from the book noted that in September 1920, Republican women in the county organized Harding-Coolidge-Taylor Clubs to get out the vote. Mrs. Shep Williams was chairman of the group, and Mrs. Clint Smith, secretary. Various parts of the county were visited by local and outside speakers.

Laws was also an active supporter of women exercising their right to vote when she became old enough to get involved, some 18 or 20 years after the suffrage movement. “When I was about 18 or 19, my mother (Mrs. B.R. Taylor), signed me up as a member of the League of Women Voters, and I remember riding in a flatbed truck in a downtown parade, carrying a sign urging women to register to vote,” she said.

She said at the time, Carter County was more or less a farming community, and women were slow to register and go to the polls and vote. ‘They left politics and  the voting to the men,” she said.

When Laws was a member of the League of Women Voters, it was not a very large group, less than 20 members.

Although she was born too late to be a part of the suffrage movement, she not only did her part when she became old enough to do so, but voted, too. The first president she voted for was Franklin D. Roosevelt, and she hasn’t missed voting in a presidential election since. “I think too many women take it for granted. I treasure that right,” she said.

Laws remembers when she was much younger — probably around eight years old — she saw President Roosevelt almost assassinated at a speaking event in Georgia. Her uncle was Director of Bayfront Park, where the president was scheduled to speak. Laws and her mother traveled to Georgia to see the president and had front row seats for the event.

“I remember selling my seat for 50 cents and climbing up into a nearby coconut tree to get a better view of the president. An Italian immigrant who had bought a gun that afternoon came to the park and was sitting in the chair behind my mother. When the president appeared on stage, he stood up in his chair and began firing his gun. The president was shielded, the man taken down, but not before he wounded two or three people. He was taken out and electrocuted the next day,” Laws shared.

“My mother was always an activist and was always signing me up for things. When I was 48 years old, she encouraged me to go college and get my degree. I did, and worked and got my master’s degree as well,” said Laws. She later taught at Milligan College for several years.

Through the years, Laws noted that there have been a number of Elizabethton women, who have been active not only in civic affairs, but in politics as well. Some she mentioned included Grace Shell, former postmistress, Atty. Hallie Riner, Mary Rasar and Tootsie Phillips, both of whom worked with her mother at the Dept. of Human Services, Mrs. Bob Johnson, and others.

In the 2019-20 school year, public school teachers in Tennessee are required to provide monthly instruction on the woman suffrage movement.