The Right to Vote, the Responsibility to Lead

The 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, guaranteeing American women the right to vote, was passed by both chambers of Congress 100 years ago on June 4, 1919. According to the National Archives, the House of Representatives first passed the amendment on May 21, 1919, and two weeks later, on June 4, the Senate followed with a vote of 56 to 25. The next year, following approval by three-fourths of state legislatures, the amendment was ratified into the Constitution. 

TBA’s top spots are held by, from left, Executive Director Joycelyn Stevenson, President-elect Michelle Sellers, Secretary Shelly Wilson, Vice President Sherie Edwards, Treasurer Mary Dohner-Smith and President Sarah Sheppeard.

Any good Tennessean knows that it was our state that tipped the scales in that summer of 1920, with 35 of the 36 states necessary having ratified the amendment. Eight states had rejected the amendment, and five had not voted. Gov. Albert H. Roberts called a special session of the General Assembly on Aug. 9 to consider the issue. Pro-suffrage and anti-suffrage activists from around the state and the country descended on Nashville, intent on influencing the legislature. The vote in the legislature was close, but young Harry T. Burn of Niota is credited when he changed his vote to support ratification, breaking a tie in the House of Representatives and making history.

At this time, the Tennessee Bar Association had been in existence nearly 40 years and that year was led by Giles L. Evans of Fayetteville, with 39 men serving before him. With women gaining the right to vote, and a handful of women practicing law by that time, it would still be 78 more years before the association elected a woman as president, when Pamela L. Reeves, now a federal judge, took the helm in 1998.

There have been six women TBA presidents — until this year when Sarah Y. Sheppeard was sworn in as the 139th president and the seventh woman, and several other women moved up in the ranks. This is the first time the TBA’s top three leadership positions have been held by women. Michelle Sellers is the new president-elect and Sherie Edwards is the new vice president. (Of note, Sellers is the first women elected from the Western district.) In addition, Shelly Wilson of Knoxville is now secretary and Mary Dohner-Smith of Nashville is treasurer.

According to statistics from the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession, updated earlier this year, 62 percent of the profession in the U.S. are men; 38 percent are women. Law schools are seeing about a 50-50 split between genders enrolled now. Nationwide, 35 percent of law school deans are women, although in Tennessee it is one in six (University of Tennessee College of Law dean Melanie D. Wilson). [NOTE: In early July, after this issue was printed, the University of Memphis named Katharine Traylor Schaffzin as dean of the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, bringing the number to two-thirds.]

Women are not taking over the legal profession, far from it, but there does seem to be an increase in representation in some areas. For instance, currently three of the four LSC-funded programs as well as other leading legal organizations are all led by female executive directors: Cathy Clayton at West Tennessee Legal Services; DarKenya Waller at the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands; Sheri Fox at Legal Aid of East Tennessee; Ann Pruitt at the Tennessee Alliance of Legal Services; Michele Johnson at the Tennessee Justice Center; Anne Mathes at Memphis’s Community Legal Center; Lisa Primm at Disability Rights Tennessee; and Barri Bernstein at the Tennessee Bar Foundation.

Our Tennessee Supreme Court currently has a majority of women: Connie Clark, Holly Kirby and Sharon Lee. And serving as the state’s first female Solicitor General is Andrée Sophia Blumstein, who is also the Tennessee Bar Journal’s Editorial Board chair.

And let’s not forget the associations! Our very own TBA has been led by Joycelyn Stevenson for nearly two years. The Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville bar associations are led by Lynda Minks Hood, Marsha S. Watson, Anne Fritz and Monica Mackie, respectively.

These are not nearly all the women who are making strides in the profession. Let us know your favorites by tagging @TennBarJournal on Twitter
#WomenLawyerHeroes.

— Elizabeth Slagle Todaro and Suzanne Craig Robertson

Liz Todaro is the TBA’s Access to Justice director. Suzanne Robertson is editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal. Hat tips to the Tennessee Secretary of State’s website, the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and the National Archives.

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