They weren’t expected as we sat at the Starbucks in Antioch talking about Women’s Suffrage, but when she told her story, I immediately understood.
Antioch’s Alma Sanford graduated top of her class in high school in Kentucky and was anxious to get on with college. She said at the time women’s options were limited, primarily to nursing, teaching, or secretarial work. Noble professions to be sure, but they were not in the cards for the future attorney.
At the time there were no federal student loans and scholarship options were limited. She knew her brother had been awarded a Rotary Club scholarship so she approached them.
“It wasn’t much, but it would have paid for community college,” she said. Then dropped the bombshell.
“I applied and they told me ‘we don’t give money to girls,’” Alma said, clearly fighting back the emotion of the moment.
She was wearing a pin to commemorate the anniversary of Susan B. Anthony’s arrest for illegally voting in an election.
She takes it personally and who can blame her?
Efforts are underway to build a Woman Suffrage monument here in Nashville. To understand the special importance of the monument being built in Tennessee, you have to understand Tennessee’s special role in the movement.
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution guarantees women the right to vote.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
An amendment to the Constitution requires three-fourths of states to ratify the amendment. At the time the 19th Amendment was being fought for, there were 48 states, which meant 36 had to ratify the amendment.
Earlier in 1919, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 19th amendment by a vote of 304 to 90. The U.S. Senate followed suit, passing it by 56 to 25.
Many fighting for a woman’s right to vote had been working hard to deliver Tennessee, but they knew the vote was going to be close. In fact, going in, it looked as if those opposed to suffrage were going to win – by a vote.
However, a young Henry Burn, whom at 22 was the youngest person elected to the Tennessee legislature, was counted among those voting against ratification. He was faced with the unenviable task of breaking a 48-48 tie in the legislature. Based on one note, he cast his ballot for ratification, shocking those who thought he stood against. The note read simply:
Hurrah and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt! I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the “rat” in ratification.
A young Mr. Burn delivered ratification and in a way, the 19th Amendment for the nation. His vote made Tennessee the 36th state, securing the amendment for all American women.
Oddly enough, Tennessee’s critical role in the 19th Amendment – we were the deciding state – is not commemorated to any meaningful degree outside the state capital. And, no monument exists in Nashville at the moment.
There is a monument in Knoxville. It was designed by artist Alan LeQuire, who is designing the monument Sanford is working to establish, and it is located in Knoxville’s Market Square Mall. It has life-sized depictions of three important Tennessee suffragists – Lizzie Crozier French of Knoxville, Anne Dallas Dudley of Nashville, and Elizabeth Avery Meriwether of Memphis.
It is a great monument, but is it enough?
Sanford doesn’t think so. She believes Nashville, as the capital of the 36th state to adopt the 19th Amendment, should have a monument.
With that in mind, Alma Sanford did what she does. She went to work and formed Tennessee Suffrage Monument, Inc., and organization dedicated to raising the funds and establishing a monument to honor the women who worked tirelessly to see Tennessee become the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment.
With deep Antioch roots, Sanford and Metro Council Woman Karen Johnson are both founding board members of the organization, the community should take pride in hard work of the many people who have tirelessly raised money and awareness.
In 2014, the organization was approved as a 501.c.3 tax exempt organization and fundraising began in earnest. The construction of the monument, whose location is yet to be determined but Sanford says Mayor Megan Barry is very interested in working with the group on an appropriate location, will be paid for entirely by private donations and then gifted to the state.
LeQuire, a Nashville-based artist who designed the Knoxville monument, is working on the design for the statewide monument.
Five women will be depicted on the monument. They are Anne Dallas Dudley, Nashville; Frankie Cato Pierce, Nashville; Sue Shelton White, Jackson and Abby Crawford Milton of Chattanooga. The likeness of Carrie Chapman Catt, of Iowa, will be added because she replaced Susan B. Anthony as president of the National Woman Suffrage Association and was present in Nashville for six weeks during the hot summer of August 1920 when Tennessee ratified the amendment.
According to a release, without her work, the ratification in Tennessee probably would not have been successful.
The goal is to formally unveil the monument on August 18, 2020, the 100th anniversary of Tennessee’s ratification of the 19th Amendment. Of course, with many celebrations going on around the country, Tennessee’s monument could be overshadowed, and Sanford said she’d like to see the monument complete and available for viewing some time before that.
The organization has raised a lot of money toward their goal, but there is still quite bit needed. They continue to accept donations and even offer for sale of a book titled The Perfect 36, Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage. The book is written by Carol Lynn Yellin and Janann Sherman, and edited by Ilene Jones-Cornwell. The lavishly illustrated volume provides a detailed history of the Woman Suffrage movement, particularly in Tennessee, and is a must-read.
It can’t be understated. Without Antioch women, there would be no effort underway to have a Tennessee Woman Suffrage Monument.
Karen Johnson, recently re-elected to her second term as Metro Nashville’s District 29 Council Member, represents a sizeable swath of Antioch, where she lives. She was a founding board member of the organization raising money for the monument.
Without Antioch, this would not happen.
Part of the movement?
There is no doubt that Sanford would hesitate to place herself among the great leaders of the Woman Suffrage movement in the country, or even on a state level. But should she?
Through our conversation, Alma Sanford kept diverting the attention to other people – men and women – who have donated money, or otherwise helped support the mission of Tennessee Suffrage Monument, Inc. There are too many names to list and too many stories to recount here.
But there was one name she kept leaving out.
Women, she told me, were to be secretaries, nurses, and teachers. That’s it. Sanford was denied college money purely based on her gender.
Still, she rose to become a successful attorney. She’s served on several college boards, including a current seat on the Nashville State Community College Foundation Board of Directors. She leads the Crossings Nashville Action Partnership. And she’s active and successful in Democratic politics – if you are running for local office you could do far worse than hiring her to lead your campaign. She wins elections.
Today, Sanford shows what may be the best way to engage in the next fight for women’s rights. A fight that includes health care, equal pay for equal work, and a host of other issues. Exceed the expectations, push back against the push back, and become a success despite what is thrown in your way.
She’s earned the right to be called a leader in the fight for women’s rights. Maybe that makes her a modern-day woman suffragist.
How you can help
Visit the Tennessee Suffrage Monument, Inc. website to learn more and to make a donation.
Follow the Tennessee Suffrage Monument, Inc. on Facebook.
Learn more about the book The Perfect 36, and make a purchase.
Learn more about artist Alan LeQuire.
Learn more about the Tennessee Woman’s Suffrage Memorial in Knoxville.