midpoint (2006-42)

Three women’s suffragists knew their place—front and center

Say It Loud

by Stephanie Piper

The new statue on Market Square is front and center, and that seems fitting. The three ladies immortalized in bronze knew that it was only by keeping their cause before the public, only by proclaiming it loudly and often in places like this very square, that change would be won.

The new monument is a tribute to the Tennessee pioneers of women’s suffrage: Lizzie Crozier French, Elizabeth Avery Meriwether and Anne Dallas Dudley. Yankee though I am, I feel a certain connection to them. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, matriarchs of the American suffrage movement, lived and died in my native New York. Tennessee, the state I’ve called home for 23 years, cast the decisive vote to ratify the 19th Amendment. There’s a symmetry there that appeals to me. I have often felt like a stranger in Knoxville, a place where local roots run deep. Yet here are three women who reached across the regional divide to finish the work my fellow New Yorkers had begun.

Suffragettes might well have scoffed at the idea of a regional divide when it came to a woman’s right to vote. Justice was justice, whether it was in Seneca Falls, N.Y., or Knoxville, Tenn. Even then, sisterhood was powerful.

Still, I find myself wondering if the wave-making business was harder here. When French addressed the Tennessee State Bar Association in 1912, she summed up the situation in a terse rhymed couplet: “All the laws concerning women I’ve studied down through time/ and the laws of Tennessee are at the bottom of the line.”

French noted the state’s deplorable literacy rate, and drew the connection between those figures and the law prohibiting women from serving on school boards. She pointed out that women were not even entitled to their own wages unless they could prove they were the sole support of a dependent child. She countered the notion that “reverence and respect” were all the recognition women required with the argument that “no one respects those with no power.”

The backward laws were the most obvious obstacles, but there were others no less daunting. The traditional view of women as gentle, docile, weaker vessels was surely magnified in the South, where ladies never raised their voices or called attention to themselves in public. I can only imagine the social censure French, Meriwether and Dallas endured in polite society: Oh, we can’t invite them. They have such disturbing opinions.

A few missed dinner parties wouldn’t have bothered these estimable women, but the popular stereotype of the suffragette as a scheming, childless harridan must have rankled. Dudley led parades with her young children, and French declared eloquently that “woman has no greater claim to the rights of the ballot than that she is the producer, not a destroyer of life.” It must have required a rare brand of courage to pin on the badge, pick up the placard and face the angry jeers of people who shouted that real women didn’t need to vote.   

The statue shows the women in motion. They lean forward slightly, their eyes set on the road ahead. It was a long road from Seneca Falls in 1848 to Nashville in 1920, and it was a weary one. Anthony and Stanton did not live to see the victory won, but they left the work in good hands.

“If you are with me, stand up proud,” French once trumpeted. “And if you’re going to say it, say it loud.” Here on this shady Tennessee square, front and center, her challenge still echoes.

Latest Blog Posts