TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Letters of the Law on Oct 1, 2015

Journal Issue Date: Oct 2015

Journal Name: October 2015 - Vol. 51, No. 10

Tennessee Lawyers Did Not Object to Women Voting

Allow me to make a few corrections to “Votes for Women: Tennessee Lawyers vs. the Suffragists,” by Wanda G. Sobieski (August 2015 Tennessee Bar Journal).
No, Tennessee lawyers per se did not object to women voting. Rather, the opponents of woman suffrage were the liquor interests, including their lawyers and lobbyists. They feared the first thing newly enfranchised women would do was impose national Prohibition on the country — and that’s exactly what happened. Tennessee went bone dry in 1909 and the two issues were merged in most people’s minds. The “anti’s” objected to “militant suffs,” as they were called, because they were trying to embarrass President Wilson, and it was soon war time. Real patriots don’t criticize the president in such times, they insisted. 

Let’s set the record straight. Until about the 1920s, in order to become a member of the Tennessee Bar Association you had to be endorsed by a member. The first woman member of the Tennessee Bar Association was Eleanor Coonrod, who became a member in 1909. Sadly, she was the first woman member kicked out of the TBA. (She collected dues from other members but failed to remit the funds.)

Proof that the TBA was never anti-woman is best shown by this: “Legal Rights of Married Women” was the speech given by Noble Smithson at the very first Tennessee Bar Association meeting in 1882. Indeed, it was the first speech of the day. He said, “For my part, I believe that the women should have all the rights and privileges enjoyed by men. I would give them the right to vote and hold office.” Smithson was the Don Paine of his day. 

Next, the first woman to address the Tennessee Bar Association regarding suffrage was Mrs. Harry B. Anderson. That was in 1916. She was well-received. 

In a future submission for the Tennessee Bar Journal I will explain the real reasons a few prominent lawyers, notably John Jay Vertrees Sr. and his wife, Virginia Dudley (Park) Vertrees, were the leaders of the “anti-suff” movement. He was the penultimate establishment lawyer and such folk usually resist change, especially when they represent vested interests. 

— Lewis Laska (TBA member since Nixon was President!), Nashville