The vote for women’s suffrage was over 100 years ago, but the chance to learn about the Tennesseans who made it possible is available all month at the Wilson County Courthouse.
A traveling exhibit titled “To Make Our Voices Heard: Tennessee Women’s Fight for the Vote” chronicles the turbulent history of women’s suffrage and how but for a last-minute reversal, ratification was dead in the water.
The exhibit, created in partnership with the Tennessee State Museum and the Tennessee State Library and Archives explores the history of the women’s suffrage movement, Tennessee’s dramatic vote to ratify in 1920 and the years that followed.
The museum’s director of exhibitions, Denise Gallagher, is a Lebanon resident.
“I was happy that this exhibit could come to my town,” she said. “I was thrilled that it was put up and I’m excited to see what happens with it and if it lives on.”
According to Gallagher the panels on display in the courthouse represent a tiny fraction of the material that was distributed around the state. She said it was important for the museum that every county around Tennessee get a set of the panels.
By design, the panels are light and easily transportable. Gallagher said they did this so that the materials could be shared between venues. Another plus she pointed out, “Normally traveling shows have to be returned. We called this project exhibit in a box, because each county gets to keep it.”
When Tennessee ratified women’s suffrage it became the 36th state to do so. At the time this represented the last domino to fall, before making it federally official.
State Librarian and Archivist Chuck Sherill said, “Tennessee’s role in becoming the 36th and final state to ratify the 19th amendment not only solidified women’s right to vote but propelled women across the country to opportunities and futures they never thought possible.”
Visitors can make their way through the touch-free display panels on their own, or by requesting a tour from Brooke Driver, executive assistant to the county mayor. Driver delighted at the chance to share a little of Tennessee’s suffragist history. On Tuesday, she was showing several courthouse employees the panel on the War of the Roses, a prominent event in Tennessee’s fight for suffrage.
A young state legislator from East Tennessee, Harry Burn, cast the deciding vote during the famed “War of the Roses.” A yellow or red rose lapel pin indicated which way each legislator planned to vote when the bill came to the floor.
Burn infuriated so many anti-suffrage members of the legislature, that he had to hide out in the attic of the state capitol until tensions eased.
Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto said, “My office is proud to offer this exhibit to the public and commemorate the brave activists that paved the way for women’s suffrage.
“This is a great opportunity to learn about the impact that women have had on shaping our nation. As a leader in our county, I enjoyed visiting this exhibit last year and learning about the extraordinary women of Tennessee that fought for the right to vote and won.”
This event would have taken place last year on the actual centennial in August, but COVID-19 derailed plans according to Joe Pagetta, the state museum’s director of communications.
Pagetta also said, “The movement really was statewide. There was something that happened in every county of the state. Our project will provide an opportunity for everyone throughout the state to celebrate their region’s achievement.”
In coordination with this traveling exhibit, the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville will soon open Ratified! Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote, an extensive 8,000 square foot exhibition exploring the Women’s Suffrage movement in Tennessee through archival images and documents, artifacts, films, interactive elements, and programming.
An online component of the exhibition, Ratified! Statewide! highlighting the suffrage movement in every Tennessee county is available now at tnmuseum.org.
In a press release, Ashely Howell, executive director of the Tennessee State Museum, said, “As we commemorate the historic vote that took place at Tennessee’s State Capitol in August of 1920, we want to honor those individuals who played key roles in the journey to gain voting rights for women,” “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to share these stories across the state.”
Funding for the project was provided by The Official Committee of the State of Tennessee Woman Suffrage Centennial. It was also funded in part by a grant from Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.