You’ve probably heard a lot about the history of the 19th amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. Tennessee played the key role in that Constitutional landmark event. Over the last couple of years, national events have celebrated its centennial. When Tennessee passed it in August of 1920, as the 36th state that made it a three-fourths majority, it became law for all of America. That’s one big reason that Knoxville is one of the very few cities in America with two permanent monuments celebrating the struggle for equal rights: the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial on Market Square, and the Burn Memorial at Market Street and Clinch.
The nail-biting vote took place in the capitol building in Nashville, and Harry Burn, the legislator whose change of heart tipped the state, was from Niota, about 50 miles to the southwest. But Knoxville, and especially downtown Knoxville, saw lots of dramatic moments in the struggle that changed the nation, and in several cases, you can stand on recognizable spots where things happened, and imagine what it was like.
Market Hall circa 1910 Postcard | courtesy Knoxville History Project
Then as now, everything happened on Market Square, which was the site of numerous pro-suffrage meetings and speeches, and its long-gone Market Hall, a building standing in the middle of the square with an auditorium for 1,000, was the site of a Tennessee State Suffrage Convention in October, 1914, at which nationally famous suffragists, including attorney Antoinette Funk (1873-1942) and one of the nation’s most militant suffragists, notable for her hunger strikes, Alice Paul (1885-1977) spoke. A few months later, Paul founded the National Woman’s Party. State leaders included Nashville suffragist Anne Dallas Dudley (1876-1955) and Knoxville’s own Lizzie Crozier French (1851-1926) who also spoke at the convention, probably the biggest pro-suffrage event ever held in Knoxville. French and Dudley are two of the three women represented in a bronze statue near the site of the convention, at the square’s south end (along with earlier Memphis-area feminist, Elizabeth Avery Meriwether).
Knox County Courthouse View from Main Street | Courtesy Knoxville History Project
One of the most dramatic scenes of the era concerned the arrival of another militant suffragist, union activist Maud Younger (1870-1936), who had led demonstrations at the White House. She came to Knoxville in November 1917, originally to speak at the Market Hall. However, concerns raised before a panicked City Commission resulted in canceling the booking. A judge interviewed her and determined she could speak instead at the Knox County Courthouse, but then the sheriff forbade her from entering the building. On the steps in front of the locked door, she remarked to the sheriff, “You have the courthouse, but I have the audience.” She turned around and spoke to a crowd of 500 supporters and curiosity seekers assembled on the courthouse lawn, a larger crowd than could have fit into the courthouse. She held the crowd rapt with a 45-minute talk about her experiences on picket lines and in prison, along with a convincing plea for suffrage. As it happens, that same courthouse is historic for another reason: it’s where many Knoxville women first voted, a couple of years later. There were other 1920s polling places, but this is one of the very few ones still standing.
The Farragut Hotel, now renovated as Hyatt Place, is on the northeast corner of Gay and Clinch. It’s where nationally significant suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947) stayed when she interviewed local politicians, including Knoxville’s legislators, on Aug. 2, 1920, just two weeks before the big vote in Nashville. All three of Knoxville’s representatives in voted for suffrage, so maybe she was persuasive. (That hotel, incidentally, was also where, about the same time, violinist Bertha Walburn Clark assembled her first Little Symphony, the precursor to the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra—maybe America’s oldest symphony orchestra founded and conducted by a woman.)
All these stories and many more are included in the “Misbehaving Women” walking tours led by Laura Still, through Knoxville Walking Tours. She leads a wide variety of walking tours, with themes ranging from literary spots to sites of deadly gunfights, but began leading that feminism-oriented tour several years ago with the approach of the suffrage centennial.
She supplemented her tours with her book, A Fair Shake, its title a favorite phrase of Lizzie Crozier French. Published by the Knoxville History Project, the short paperback outlines Knoxville’s side of the struggle, with colorful mini-biographies of local suffragists and stories of relevant downtown sites, with pictures of buildings no longer standing, like the Women’s Building on Main, and the Lyceum on Walnut—and the old East Tennessee Female Institute, where some future suffragists learned to be persuasive.
Downtown has changed a lot in the last 100-plus years, but not so much that you can’t stand on a corner and imagine what happened here.