TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Wanda Sobieski on Aug 1, 2015

Journal Issue Date: Aug 2015

Journal Name: August 2015 - Vol. 51, No. 8

Tennessee Lawyers vs. the Suffragists

They must have felt the whole world was against them. When they arrived in Knoxville in late 1917, they were met with the same hostility that they had met in Memphis, Nashville, and several smaller Tennessee towns.[1] The local lawyers and judges in each community had used their considerable influence to silence the former prisoners.[2] Even the weather had now turned against them. Their long gowns and light wraps were all that protected them from the cold, rainy November night and the swirling controversy.[3] As they walked to the Knoxville courthouse, they fully expected to be shot.[4]

Download and read this article, with photos

Download and read this article,
with photos.

Nearly 70 years into the struggle, the prize was in sight but still very far out of reach. The courageous, inspiring women who led them through the early days had shown amazing strength and endurance, but even they could not escape the ravages of age and death. Now more than a decade after Susan B. Anthony’s death, the finish of the battle had been left to a new generation that was deeply divided on strategy and tactics.

Finally, in 1916, Woman Suffrage made it into the platforms of both national political parties,[5] giving the women hope that the newly re-elected President Wilson would act quickly to have Congress pass a federal amendment so millions of women would have a voice in their government at last. Earlier that year the amendment had been killed before it made it to the floor of the House of Representatives, because, in part, to the efforts of Tennessee Rep. Thetus Sims[6] (whose own daughter was in favor of the suffrage cause). But with the new “commitment” in the party platform and President Wilson’s re-election hope grew.

The excitement was palpable when Alice Paul and 300 supporters met with President Wilson on Jan. 9, 1917, expecting that the president would have a plan for winning Congressional approval of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.[7] They had worked so hard and so long to get to this point and were not at all prepared for the abrupt and icy reception they received. Instead of committing to help to advance the cause in Congress as his party’s platform suggested, President Wilson shirked any commitment to Woman Suffrage by claiming he was not the leader of his party, but only the servant of his party, saying, “Ladies, you must concert public opinion on behalf of woman suffrage.”[8] Once again, they were on their own.

While they certainly did not have the kind of resources the national political parties had, the decades of ceaseless pleading, explaining, arguing and campaigning for the Amendment had taught them to hold their heads high, swallow their fears and march on. They were not about to give up now. They resolved to raise Woman Suffrage to the top of the national agenda by all the peaceful means they could muster or imagine. They would “concert public opinion” against the political party in power that chose not to use its power and influence to bring the franchise to the women.[9] Without hesitation, they went to work.

The very next day after the chilling meeting with President Wilson, and in response to the president’s “suggestion,” the National Woman’s Party began a campaign to win the attention and favor of the nation.[10] Dignified, silent sentinels with colorful gold, purple and white banners appeared at the front gates of the White House and stood motionless day in and day out, in ice, snow, sleet, rain or relentless heat. They served as a constant and unavoidable reminder to the president and all who entered there that American women were still being denied full citizenship in this country that bragged about its “democracy” all over the world.[11]

Even when the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the peaceful, relentless picketing continued.[12] The women did not put aside pressing for their fundamental rights again as they had done during the Civil War. The universal suffrage that was expected to follow a Union victory in the Civil War had, instead, become suffrage for black men only and resulted in the first explicit Constitutional protection for only male voters.[13]

As President Wilson extolled the virtues of democracy to garner support for America’s effort in World War I (the war to “make the world safe for democracy”), he seemed oblivious to the harsh irony of his words. The silent sentinels responded by carrying not only the beautiful, colorful banners of the National Woman’s Party, but also banners emblazed with the president’s own words praising democracy.[14] Those banners drew attention to his hypocrisy by failing to act to help half of the citizens of his own country who had no voice in their government. The women pointedly blamed President Wilson and the Democratic party in power for their failure to correct this injustice.[15]

As month after month wore on, the persistent and relentless presence and criticism of the women grated on the president and his supporters. Finally, on June 20, 1917, Washington D.C. Police Commissioner Louis Brownlow (son-in-law of Tennessee Rep. Thetus Sims and husband of Sims’ suffragist daughter) issued an order to arrest and imprison them.[16] Many were confined for long periods of time without charges as government agents tried to find a crime with which to charge them.[17]

The arrests and jailings continued for months, but did little to discourage the women. Inspired by their courage, other women poured into Washington D.C. to replace the ones who were arrested, only to be arrested and jailed themselves as still more women came to replace them. Ultimately hundreds of women —women from all walks of life, all social levels, most states (even some from other countries) — came to help.[18] At first the women were imprisoned in an abandoned, dilapidated jail in D.C. or in nearby Occoquan workhouse. No one was spared, young or old, mill workers and aristocrats alike were arrested. Even the frail-looking young Quaker, Alice Paul, was jailed and subjected to deplorable treatment.[19]

In response, on Nov. 5, 1917, Alice Paul and Rose Winslow began a hunger strike, demanding to be treated as political prisoners.[20] In an effort to discredit her, Alice Paul was transferred to solitary confinement in a psychiatric ward.[21] How disappointed the government officials must have been when their psychiatrist declared she was not insane, but, instead, possessed the spirit of Joan of Arc. The effort to discourage the women by force and brutality culminated on Nov. 15, 1917, when the women were subjected to what came to be known as the “Night of Terror.”[22] They were dragged, pushed and beaten in their cells. Lucy Burns was handcuffed to the cell all night with her arms above her head. Julia Emory showed her empathy by assuming the same position. The next day more women joined the hunger strike.[23] The merciless, crude force-feeding began. But the deplorable conditions, starvation, wormy food, solitary confinement, beatings and force feedings could not kill their spirit.[24]

Still, as the women were released from jail, most returned immediately to the White House to continue their protest with renewed determination. Others were dispatched to make the ill treatment of the women known everywhere.[25]

Former prisoners Maud Younger, Joy Young and Mrs. Howard Gould were sent on a Dixie Tour through the South to ensure that the chivalrous men of the south were aware of the horrible treatment the women suffered at the hands of the northern police.[26] When the Dixie Tour came to Tennessee in late 1917, advance teams secured halls for the women to speak and places for them to stay in five small towns as well as Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga.[27]

Tennessee Lawyers Worked to Silence the Women

Members of the bar in Tennessee asserted that the women’s acts and words were seditious or treason.[28] They were adamant that the women would not be allowed to speak. The women later described the climate as “an artificially created wave of hysteria [that] seized the state.”[29] To silence the women, attorneys formed committees that went to the owners of the halls, churches, private homes, local governments and even to the innkeepers across the state to convince them to refuse to accommodate the women.[30]

The lawyers’ efforts were successful in most of the small towns as well as in Memphis and Nashville, where the suffragists’ permits were revoked and contracts broken.[31] They were even denied the use of the streets and public areas for assembly.[32] In Knoxville, however, the lawyers met their match.

Lizzie Crozier French,[33] a dedicated teacher, had devoted much of her life to improving life for citizens of Knoxville. Her efforts included a wide range of contributions from controlling air pollution downtown, to free school lunches (hungry children do not learn), to assigning ratings for motion pictures, to assisting parents in setting appropriate limits on their children’s entertainment. The list of her accomplishments is long indeed, but her proudest accomplishment was being a suffragist.[34]

Her interest in suffrage caused her to undertake the study of the laws of all the states as they affected women. She persuaded the Tennessee Bar Association to allow her a few minutes to address them at its annual convention in 1912.[35] They reluctantly allowed her to do so, making her the first woman ever to address that body. Her sister, Lucy Crozier (also not a lawyer), founded the first Legal Aid Association in Knoxville in 1924.[36]

When Lizzie Crozier French appeared before the Knoxville City Commission (John W. Flenniken, N. T. Little, Sam E. Hill, and James Griffin Crumbliss) on Nov. 23, 1917, requesting permission to use Market Hall for a meeting of the former prisoners, Mayor John E. McMillian moved that they be denied the use of all city property.[37] With only one dissenting vote (James G. Crumbliss who said he believed in “world-wide democracy”), the commission voted to deny the use of Market Hall and reported that they would “probably” deny the use of the streets as well.[38]

Not willing to be silenced again, the women emphatically announced their intention to speak anyway. Ms. French, with the help of the Central Labor Union, was able to obtain tentative permission from Judge George M. Trotter Sr. to use his courtroom — subject to convincing the lawyers on the Courthouse and Jail Committee (Justice S. H. Cottrell, S.E. Mays, Esq. and J.W. Lyon, Esq.) to allow it.[39]

The committee was besieged with calls opposing the suffragists and protests from the Bar.[40] The committee ultimately demanded to hear the speeches before they would even consider granting permission to use the courthouse. The former prisoners complied and submitted to rigorous cross examination by the county attorney, James B. Johnson (a professed opponent of the White House protests).[41] Finding nothing that could legally qualify as sedition, they surprisingly granted permission to use the courthouse.[42] The delegation of suffragists happily decorated the courtroom and made ready for the meeting.[43]

As the crowd arrived at the courthouse on the evening of Nov. 27, 1917, to hear the stories of the former prisoners, they found the doors of the old courthouse bolted and barred shut.[44] When they knocked on the doors, Sheriff John L. Callaway and his corps of armed deputies appeared from the rear of the building and denied the women access.[45] Deputy John Sneed threatened to arrest anyone who argued about it. Judge Trotter confronted the sheriff and insisted that the courthouse was in the custody and control of the committee and that the committee and the county attorney approved its use.[46] The sheriff refused to back down even though Knoxville’s Congressman, Richard Wilson Austin (also a lawyer), urged him to do so.[47]

When they became aware of the sheriff’s plan, the Central Labor Union responded by sending 80 armed men to the courthouse to protect the suffragists from the sheriff.[48] The sheriff retreated to protect the courthouse from the inside and the Labor Union men circled the courthouse on the outside, blocking the sheriff and his deputies inside and separating the sheriff from the women.[49]

Defying the cold night air and icy rain, Maud Younger declared that while the sheriff had the courthouse, she had the audience.[50] Standing on the north stairs of the old courthouse, she told of the horrors of the Occoquan workhouse and the District Jail to the crowd that stood shivering in the rain for more than an hour that late November night.[51] Those gathered learned of the common sense fairness of the women’s requests and were shocked at the outrageous response of the government.

Knoxville survived the clashes that November night and arguably set the example for other Tennessee towns. For example, Chattanooga Police Commissioner T. C. Betterton had issued orders to prevent the “militant suffragists” from speaking at Hotel Patten.[52] The Patten was “bombarded” by protests against allowing the women to speak, including a formal resolution from a committee of the Chattanooga Bar.[53] The day after the Knoxville speech, however, the Central Labor Union in Chattanooga offered its hall so the women would be able to address the people of Chattanooga in spite of the efforts of politicians and lawyers to silence them.[54] Commissioner Betterton’s resolution to interfere with the women was voted down in spite of the Bar’s formal resolution.[55]

Meanwhile in Washington D.C., government officials ordered the release of Alice Paul, Lucy Burns and 20 other suffrage prisoners.[56] (Other arrests came later as the National Woman’s Party increased the pressure on the president and Congress for their inaction.)[57] The National Woman’s Party credited the “steady stream of protests and resolutions from the South” with having “a material effect in releasing the suffrage prisoners from Occoquan workhouse and the District Jail in Washington, and in transforming overnight the sentiments of the southern delegations.”[58]

The Tide Begins to Turn

Just a little over a month later, in January 1918, Tennessee’s Congressman Thetus Sims switched sides and sponsored an effort to pass the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in the House of Representatives.[59] His support for the cause continued to grow so strong that when the Amendment came up for vote again in 1919, he refused to get treatment for a painful broken shoulder until after the vote so he could use the limited time he had to try to persuade more southern representatives to support it.[60]

The exact reason for his change of heart is not clear. Some unidentified men who heard Ms. Younger speak in Knoxville that cold November night in 1917 reportedly formed a delegation to visit their Representative in Congress and complain about how the women were being treated — whether or not they supported suffrage.[61] Maybe that influenced Congressman Sims (also a lawyer), or maybe his daughter’s steadfast stand in favor of the women that her husband had jailed carried the day.

All across Tennessee lawyers and judges found themselves on opposite sides of the clashes over suffrage, the protests at the White House and the right to speak in public. Some of the lawyers were willing to rethink their positions and move toward supporting the fundamental right of the women to vote.

But not everyone came to believe the cause was just. At least one of the local Knoxville papers reported that anti-suffragists actually blamed the lawyers, claiming that the “whole [idea of protesting at the White House] was cooked up for the Woman’s Party leaders by lawyers hired to find methods of public agitation, personal harassment and coercion against the president.”[62]

Though Tennessee was deeply divided on the suffrage issue, the final, critical vote to make the 19th Amendment a reality came from Tennessee in 1920. More specifically, the vote that broke a tie and gave Tennessee the honor of granting millions of women the right to vote came from a young legislator from Niota in East Tennessee. This was Harry T. Burn, who followed his mother’s advice and voted for the controversial measure.[63] His district thanked him by re-electing him shortly after that courageous vote.[64]

TBA President Urges Support for Woman Suffrage

As for the Tennessee Bar Association, when its president, Col. E. Watkins, gave his last official address to the TBA convention in 1918, he urged the bar to actively support woman suffrage.[65] A resolution favoring the Susan B. Anthony Amendment was proposed and passed with only one judge, Judge Higgins, asking to go on record against it.[66]

Following Col. Watkin’s speech, four women became the first to be admitted to the Tennessee Bar Association: Marion Griffin (Memphis), Elizabeth Lee Miller (Bolivar), Margaret Ervin Ford (Chattanooga) and Nellie Orevend (Chattanooga).[67]

Although it took some time, the bar did warm to appreciating the talents and abilities of women. Maybe someday it will even use its considerable influence to demand full, constitutional equality for women by endorsing and committing to actively support the Equal Rights Amendment to the Federal Constitution.


  1. “Shall Women Be Heard at Hall,” Knoxville Journal, Nov. 24, 1917, Metro Edition, at p. 10; “Find Courthouse Doors Barred,” Knoxville Journal, Nov. 28, 1917, Metro Edition, at p. 7; “Suffragist to Be Prevented,” Knoxville Journal, Nov. 25, 1917, Metro Edition, at p. 14. “Women Have No Place to Meet,” Knoxville Journal, Nov. 26, 1917, Metro Edition, at p. 6; “Woman’s Party Refused Permission to Meet,” Knoxville Journal, Nov. 21, 1917, at p. 10.
  2. Id. “Want to Speak at Courthouse,” Knoxville Journal, Nov. 27, 1917, at p. 8; Maud Younger, Maud Younger: Along the Way (unpublished autobiography).
  3. Supra, note 1, “Find Courthouse Doors Barred.”
  4. Supra, note 2, Younger.
  5. The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, “The People’s Experience: Woman,” http//woodrowwilson.org/education/forstudents1916election/the-peoples-experience-women.
  6. “Historical Highlights: Rep. Thetus Sims of Tennessee,” Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives History, Art & Archives, history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1851-1900/Representative-Thetus-Sims-of-Tennessee; Tom Humphrey, “TN Women’s Suffrage History: Before There Was Harry Burn, There Was Thetus Sims,” knoxblogs.com, Sept. 9, 2010, knoxblogs.com/humphreyhill/2010/09/19/tn_womens_suffrage_history_bef.
  7. Maud Younger, “Revelations of a Woman Lobbyist,” McCall’s, October 1919, at p. 12.
  8. Id. Maud Younger, Maud Younger: Along the Way (unpublished autobiography).
  9. Supra, note 7.
  10. Detailed Chronology, National Woman’s Party History, Library of Congress: American Memory, www.loc.gov/collections/static/women-of-protest/images/detchron.pdf.
  11. Supra, note 7, at p. 39.
  12. Id.
  13. U.S. Constitution, 13th and 14th Amendments.
  14. Supra, note 7, at p. 40.
  15. Supra, note 7, at p. 41.
  16. Supra, note 6.
  17. Supra, note 7, at p. 39
  18. Id.
  19. Id.
  20. Supra, note 10.
  21. Id.
  22. Id.
  23. Id.
  24. “Two Leading Suffragists to Speak in Knoxville Tuesday,” Knoxville Journal, Nov. 25, 1917, Metro Edition, at p. 5; Supra, note 10.
  25. Supra, note 7, at p. 39.
  26. Supra, note 7, at p. 40.
  27. Maud Younger, Maud Younger: Along the Way (unpublished autobiography); Jackson, Tenn., was a notable exception where its mayor defended the women’s right to speak and endorsed their sentiments; “Nationwide Tour Closes in Washington,” The Suffragist, Dec.8, 1917, at p. 11; “Shall Women Be Heard at Hall,” Knoxville Journal, Nov.24, 1917, Metro Edition, at p. 10B.
  28. “Militant Suffs Get Courtroom,” Knoxville Sentinel, Nov. 27, 1917, at p. 18; Supra, note 8.
  29. “Nationwide Tour Closes in Washington,” The Suffragist, Dec. 8, 1917, at p. 11.
  30. Supra, note 8.
  31. Id., Supra, note 28.
  32. “Woman’s Party Refused Permission to Meet,” Knoxville Sentinel, Nov. 21, 1917, at p. 10; Supra, note 28; “Suffrage Debate,” Knoxville Sentinel, Nov. 28, 1917, at p. 8; “Shall Women Be Heard,” supra, note 27; “Pickets Can’t Speak at Hall,” Knoxville Journal, Nov. 25, 1917, Metro Edition, at p. 7; “Suffragist to Be Prevented,” Knoxville Journal, Nov. 25, 1917, Metro Edition, at p. 14.
  33. Lizzie Crozier French papers, McClung Historical Collection.
  34. Id.
  35. Proceeding of the Bar Association of Tennessee 1912-1913, Address by Lizzie Crozier French. Read the text of her stirring speech at www.tba.org/sites/default/files/French_Addresses_1912TBA_Convention.pdf.
  36. Id.
  37. Knoxville City Council Minutes, Nov. 23, 1917, Book 5, at p. 532; Knoxville City Council minutes, Nov. 24, 1917, Book 5, at p. 534; “Pickets,” supra note 32.
  38. “Pickets,” supra note 32.
  39. “Want to Speak at Courthouse,” Knoxville Journal Nov. 27, 1917, at p. 8.
  40. “Shall Women Be Heard,” supra, note 27; “Find Courthouse Doors Barred,”, supra, note 1.
  41. Id.
  42. Id.
  43. Id.
  44. Id.
  45. Id.
  46. Id.
  47. Id.
  48. Younger, supra, note 8; “The Human Subject in American Constitutional History,” http://www.h-net.org/~/law/teaching-legal-history/vanburkleo.htm.
  49. Id.
  50. “Women Speak in Spite of Locks,” Knoxville Sentinel, Nov. 28, 1917, at p. 9.
  51. Id.
  52. “Suffrage Debate,” supra, note 32.
  53. “Suffragist to Be Prevented,” supra, note 32.
  54. “Suffragists to Speak in Chattanooga Hall,” Knoxville Sentinel, Nov. 28, 1917, at p. 16.
  55. “Suffragist to Be Prevented,” supra, note 32.
  56. “Hunger Strikers Released,” Knoxville Journal, Nov. 28, 1917, Metro Edition, at p. 14.
  57. Detailed Chronology, supra, note 10.
  58. “Nationwide Tour Closes,” supra, note 27.
  59. Tom Humphrey, “TN Women’s Suffrage History: Before There Was Harry Burn, There Was Thetus Sims,” knoxblogs.com (Sept. 9, 2010), knoxblogs.com/humphreyhill/2010/09/19/tn_womens_suffrage_history_bef/
  60. Tom Humphrey, supra, note 6.
  61. Younger, supra, note 8.
  62. “‘Learned’ Suffragettes,” Knoxville Sentinel, Nov. 28, 1917, at p. 6.
  63. Harry Burn Papers, McClung Historical Collection.
  64. Id.
  65. Proceedings of the Bar Association of Tennessee 1916-1918, Address of President Watkins, at p. 21, https://www.tba.org/sites/default/files/TBAPrez_1918Address_Suffrage.pdf
  66. Proceedings of the Bar Association of Tennessee 1916-1918, Report of Central Council, at p. 170
  67. Id.

Wanda Sobieski WANDA SOBIESKI is a principal with Sobieski, Messer & Associates PLLC in Knoxville. A graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law, she is a former president of the East Tennessee Lawyers’ Association for Women and coordinator of several Susan B. Anthony Celebrations. She is a Rule 31 Listed family mediator.