Monday, January 12, 2015
Monument to honor Tennessee suffragists inches closer
On Dec. 15, the Tennessee Capitol Commission unanimously approved the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Monument's request to place a memorial on Legislative Plaza. On Jan. 8, the State Building Commission will vote on the project.
The statue would be designed by artist Alan LeQuire, who is known for his prominent public works including "Musica" and "Athena Parthenos," and placed on the bridge connecting Legislative Plaza to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.
This would be the first statue on the plaza honoring a woman. (Indeed, according to a 2011 story in Harper's Magazine, fewer than 400 of the nearly 5,200 statues nationally honor women.)
"This history will be preserved for the ages because public art is forever," said Paula Casey, president of Tennessee Woman Suffrage Monument Inc. "That means that people who live and work in Tennessee and visit will know about Tennessee's greatest gift to our country. All women vote today thanks to Tennessee.
"It was hard fought. We need to remember that history. Four generations of women sacrificed so we could be the beneficiaries of that peaceful revolution," Casey said. "... I was 21 before I knew this story. Tennesseans should be proud of this history. I don't want any child growing up not knowing this story like I did, and I grew up in Nashville. After Tennessee's vote to ratify, 27 million women were enfranchised. It is a huge story."
In June 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in America, but it could not become law until it was ratified by 36 of the 48 states. Several states refused to call a special session to consider the issue, but Tennessee agreed to do so.
On Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee became the final state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment. In what became known as the War of the Roses, suffragists donned yellow roses, wore sashes and carried placards as they strategized in the Hermitage Hotel and marched up the hill to the state Capitol to convince legislators to ratify the amendment. Those opposed wore red roses.
The Senate approved ratification, but the House was evenly split. The youngest legislator, Harry Burn of McMinn County, wore a red rose to symbolize his stance, but a letter from his mother changed his mind — and history, because his vote broke the 48-48 tie and the ratification passed.
LeQuire's art features five of the movement's leaders marching to equality — Anne Dallas Dudley, Carrie Chapman Catt and Frankie Pierce of Nashville, Sue Shelton White of Jackson and Abby Crawford Milton of Chattanooga. It will also feature the state's female leaders who earned the designation of "first," such as former Public Service Commissioner Jane Eskind, the first female elected to statewide office; Rep. Beth Harwell, the first female Speaker of the House; and late Rep. Lois DeBerry, the first female speaker pro tempore of the House.
Statue proponents are thrilled with the statue's proposed location, which was selected by state architect Peter Heimbach. If approved, the statue would be appropriately located halfway between the Hermitage Hotel and the state Capitol building, and the nearby trees will be replaced with yellow rose bushes.
'We need to do something'
The idea for the statue originated with Alma Sanford, a Nashville attorney and longtime political activist on Aug. 26, 2010, after she read Gov. Phil Bredesen's proclamation for Women's Equality Day. "We were cleaning up, and out of the blue it hit me, 'Ten years from now, it will be 100 years. We need to do something because Tennessee is a big deal in this effort,' " she said.
About two months later, she decided to act on her idea after showing former Vermont Gov. Madeline Kunin around Nashville.
"I took Governor Kunin to see the small plaque behind the Hermitage Hotel that commemorates Tennessee's ratification of the 19th Amendment. It is the only 'outdoors' recognition for the suffragists and their male supporters. I apologized that the only other memorial is a bas relief by Alan LeQuire, located inside the state Capitol building, but it was night and the Capitol building was closed.
"She made it very clear that she was disgusted that we hadn't properly memorialized the tremendous work that was done here."
Sanford approached the Tennessee Women's Political Caucus, which donated $4,000 in seed money and tapped her to oversee the special project. The project was named the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Monument and nine women were appointed to the board from across the state.
The group's first fundraiser was hosted by Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and his wife, Anne Davis, a descendant of one of Nashville's suffragists. In 2012, Tennessee first lady Crissy Haslam offered her support as well.
The group, whose website is www.tnsuffragemonument.org, is now largely focused on fundraising, because about $900,000 is needed. "We are solidly halfway there and we have quite a few commitments," Casey said.
Yvonne Wood and Pat Pierce created the Perfect 36 Society, which will be limited to 200 women who donate $500 or more and will have their names and cities featured on the monument.
"Our Perfect 36 Society goal is to raise $100,000," Wood said. "We hope women that want to be involved in this can be involved, and not just the wealthy people."
Nashville's statue would be the second one in the state commemorating the suffragists, behind Knoxville's. "We may have a smaller one in Jackson of Sue Shelton White and then I have a group together for one in Memphis in 2016," Casey said. "The folks in Chattanooga want one, too.
"We want this spread across the state so we can go after heritage tourism, which includes Scout troops, historians and scholars. This is big. You know how everybody goes after the Civil War? They need to go after this because this was truly a statewide effort."
Nashville native Beverly Keel is a longtime journalist and professor; reach her at email@example.com.