How Women Finally Got the Vote (with My Uncle’s Help)
The struggle to win the right to vote for women was far more dramatic than most people realize, and it turns out that my grandmother’s uncle played a key role.
The state of American politics these days has got me ruminating about an uncle who died six years before I was born — a minor character in the drama of history, a forgotten footnote to a very important chapter. He’s also, in a way, my hero—and a testament to the consequences of personal and political courage.
Albert Houston Roberts was first a schoolteacher, then an attorney and circuit judge, and then governor of Tennessee. He held office a hundred years ago, in 1920 — just in time to help change history. The year before, Congress had passed the 19th Amendment, 39 straightforward words that inflamed passions nationwide. If ratified by 36 states, the amendment would give women the cherished right to vote.
One by one, 35 states approved the amendment during the remainder of 1919 and into 1920. Finally, just one more state was needed to complete the “Perfect 36.” None of the recalcitrant Southern or Western states looked ready to budge.
According to family lore, A.H. Roberts passionately believed that women should have the right to vote. That belief is at odds with some sources, which will tell you he was a Johnny-come-lately to the suffragette party.
Then, during that sultry August of 1920, Gov. Roberts called the Tennessee General Assembly into special session. His intention was to see passage of the 19th Amendment.
If Tennessee failed to pass the amendment in special session, the amendment likely would die. Family lore says that Roberts called in every favor owed him and used every ounce of influence he could muster to force the issue. Passions in Tennessee ran high; nevertheless, in a close vote, the measure passed.
As a child, I discounted the story. My children still do. But journalist that I am, I sensed a story. I wrote to American Heritage magazine, suggesting I research the story and record the process.
If the editor deigned to answer, I expected a thin letter. Instead, I got a thick packet. The story — far more dramatic than I imagined — already had been written. As I researched further, though, I discovered there was far more to the story than had yet been told.
August 1920 was muggy in Nashville. That oppressive summer, the whole country’s attention focused on the Tennessee capital, which teemed with reporters from New York, Chicago, Washington and Boston. Suffragists wrote letters, staged rallies and canvassed legislators. Supporters wore yellow roses. Those opposed wore red. Legislators showed their sentiments by pinning roses to their lapels.
A motion to table was defeated when one legislator switched sides. When a vote on the amendment was called, legislators split, 48–48. A second vote was called, and young Harry T. Burn — a 24-year-old Republican from McMinn County who was serving his first term—broke the deadlock. He voted to enfranchise women, despite the red rose pinned brazenly to his collar.
Pandemonium erupted, and Burn supposedly climbed out a a third-floor window to escape the mob, hiding himself in the Capitol attic. Later, he explained that he wore a red rose, but in his pocket he carried his mother’s letter. The wishes of his widowed mother, Feb Ensminger Burn, won out over political expediency and superficial coalitions. Burn voted for the controversial amendment.
The anti-amendment forces, of course, were not happy. They later alleged Burn was bribed, and a grand jury was called to investigate the accusations. He responded to attacks on his integrity and honor by inserting a personal statement into the House Journal, explaining that his decision to cast his vote for the suffragists was based on morality, justice, his mother, and the glory of the Republican party.
“I had always believed that women had an inherent right to vote,” Burn later wrote. “My mother was a college woman, a student of national and international affairs who took an interest in all public issues. She could not vote. Yet the tenant farmers on our farm, some of whom were illiterate, could vote. On that roll call, confronted with the fact that I was going to go on record for time and eternity on the merits of the question, I had to vote for ratification.”
The battle wasn’t over, however. Opponents managed to delay official ratification, and angry anti-suffragists attempted to file an injunction preventing Roberts from certifying the legislature’s vote. The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled against them.
Roberts signed the bill on Aug. 28, and two days later women earned the constitutional right that white men had possessed since the nation was born, and that black men had possessed since the 1860s.
Gov. Roberts accomplished quite a bit more during his tenure, as well, so it is interesting to me that his role in giving women the right to vote is what my family has taken pride in for several generations. According to the family story, Albert Houston Roberts passionately believed that women should be enfranchised.
That belief is at odds with some sources, which will tell you that Gov. Roberts was a Johnny-come-lately to the suffragette cause. He was just bowing to pressure from President Woodrow Wilson, says one source. Another source makes much of the fact that Roberts delayed the special session until after he won renomination as the Democratic Party’s candidate in the primary Aug. 5 (the special session commenced Aug. 9). Before I tell you why I think they are wrong, let me tell you a little bit about the man.
A.H. Roberts was born in 1868 in the Alpine community, some 10 miles east of the town of Livingston in Overton County, Tennessee, in the Upper Cumberland region bordering Kentucky. Although considered part of Middle Tennessee, Overton County hugs the edge of the Appalachians. The community, surrounded by high ridges, is nestled in a valley carved by Nettlecarrier Creek, named after the Cherokee chief who once roamed the area.
He was surrounded by competent, intelligent, well-educated women. The contrast between these women and some of the illiterate, shiftless men who enjoyed the vote simply because of their sex must have been profound.
Although the region is known for the poverty of the mountain folks, Roberts came from a wealthy and prominent family. At the time of the 1860 federal census, his grandfather Jesse Roberts is listed as the wealthiest man in the county, with real estate worth $18,000 and other property worth $45,000. That “other property” probably consisted primarily of the 40 enslaved human beings enumerated on the census.
In the early 1880s, Albert’s father John Allen Roberts and his mother Sarah Emaline Carlock Roberts boarded a train with their nine children (a 10th would come later) for a move more than 600 miles west to southeast Kansas. They settled in Cherokee County, which bumps up against Missouri to the east and Oklahoma (then Indian Territory) to the south. The well-watered, rolling terrain sits on the Ozarks Plateau and was a coal-mining center by the time the Roberts arrived.
Albert was the oldest child at 13 or 14. According to an unpublished reminiscence about the journey, the family moved west seeking better educational opportunities for their large brood. I can attest to the importance of education to the family. My grandmother was the daughter of Laura Victoria Roberts, Albert’s younger sister. To attend high school (at a time when an eighth-grade education was the norm), she boarded a train to the town of Pittsburg, some 20 miles away, where she stayed during the week.
Grandmother took the train home every weekend, returning to school with fresh eggs to pay her room and board. She graduated in 1920, the same year her Uncle Albert signed the bill that would ensure she could share the vote with men.
In “The Wizard of Overton,” an article by Kenneth Braden in the Tennessee Historical Journal, Roberts is described as quoting Don Quixote to his secretary and amazing her by writing one letter himself while at the same time dictating a completely different letter to her. He was known for his stentorian voice, his courtroom presence, and his piercing intelligence.
Roberts was widely believed to have gotten his brains from his mother Sarah, Braden writes. Sarah Emaline Carlock was descended from the same southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee stock as the Roberts, independent folk who pushed west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the 1770s. She was the great-granddaughter of Hanchrist Carlock, a Palatine German who worked with George Washington as a surveyor in the Shenandoah Valley.
After finishing school in Kansas, the16-year-old Albert announced his intention to return to Tennessee for college. He enrolled in Hiwasee College in Madisonville, about 125 miles southeast of his old home in Overton County. His choice of college might seem surprising unless one understands the web of family connecting Kansas and Tennessee; his father’s sister, LeeAnn, had also settled in Cherokee County with her husband, John Quincy Adams Sproul, and LeeAnn was close friends with John Q.A. Sproul’s sister.
John’s sister, Mary Katherine Sproul, had married Bailey Owen Bowden, an instructor of Latin at Hiwassee. Albert boarded with the family in Madisonville and married their only daughter, Nora Dean, two days after graduation with his bachelor’s degree in 1889. Albert and his new father-in-law soon returned to Overton County to re-open the old Alpine Academy, which was founded as a Presbyterian mission school to educate children in the remote hill country of the Upper Cumberland region.
I digressed into this family history to explain some powerful influences on A.H. Roberts, influences that I think shaped the man who later defied convention and paid the price. Like Harry T. Burn, he was surrounded by competent, intelligent, well-educated women. The contrast between these women and some of the illiterate, shiftless men who enjoyed the vote simply because of their sex must have been profound.
“I always heard that his wife was instrumental in changing his mind about giving women the vote,” my Aunt Nancy told me.
Without a doubt, his wife Nora Dean was a smart and determined woman, like her mother Mary Katherine Sproul. Both the Roberts and the Sprouls hailed from Overton County in Middle Tennessee, where Unionists were few and far between during the disastrous Civil War. As Union supporters, both the Sproul and Roberts families suffered the stigma of being “traitors.”
Mary Katherine wrote eloquently of the families’ trials. She described the persecutions endured by both her family and the Roberts clan in a manuscript transcribed by Albert W. Schroeder Jr. and published by the Tennessee Historical Quarterly in 1950.
A graduate of the Female Institute in Maryville, Mary Katherine ran a subscription school in Livingston until the war’s outbreak, when most of her students’ parents turned against her.
“I was scorned, derided, abused and scoffed at by people who I would not associate with before the war came up,” she wrote. She described them as a poor, ignorant, illiterate class of people rushing madly to their ruin, led by wily leaders using deceptive flattery.
Mary Katherine also described a regiment of Confederate troops encamping at the Roberts plantation, taking 40 of the Roberts’ hogs and then turning hundreds of horses into the wheat fields owned by Jesse Roberts, Albert’s grandfather, just before harvest. Mary Katherine’s mother lamented the destruction of his property,” saying he was a “good old man and has made his fortune by honest industry.”
Mary Katherine’s 18-year-old brother John left Overton to join the Union army. After the war, she married Bowden, the county clerk in neighboring Fentress County, who also served in the Union army while his six brothers served in the Confederate army. Albert’s father, John Allen Roberts, is believed to have been conscripted into the Confederate army despite the family’s Unionist leanings, as was his older brother George. In many families, brother literally fought against brother, not always because of conviction but because of circumstances.
Albert Houston Roberts was born just three years after the disastrous war ended. It was a difficult time.
Roberts earned a master’s degree during his time at the Alpine Institute and studied law in the office of a Livingston attorney. He was appointed superintendent of public instruction for Overton County while he built his law practice. In 1918 he was elected governor as a Democrat in an uneventful campaign overshadowed by the war in Europe and the influenza epidemic at home.
In his short two years in the governor’s office, Roberts focused on tax reform. He delighted in giving examples of large holdings previously assessed at a small fraction of their true value and oversaw the amendment of tax laws to remove assessment inequalities. A new tax helped counties fund schools; the average elementary school teacher salary increased by 40 percent while the average high school teacher’s salary increased by 19 percent.
A workers’ compensation law was passed, and the State Police Bill was signed into law, including historic provisions that prohibited lynching and other forms of mob violence. He even oversaw creation of the Tennessee Historical Commission.
The anti-suffrage women circulated pamphlets accusing all suffragists of being ‘atheistic feminists who rewrote the Bible,’ ‘destroyed the home,’ and ‘blackened the honor of Robert E. Lee.’
As the 1920 primary election approached, however, Roberts’ campaign advisers had good reason to fear he might lose. Farmers hated the new tax laws, and labor was organizing against him because of his emphasis on “law and order,” which included sending National Guardsmen to break up strikes against the Carter Shoe Co. and the Knoxville Railway & Light Co. Gov. Roberts had managed to alienate almost everyone.
In her 1978 American Heritage article, “Countdown in Tennessee: 1920,” Carol Lynn Yellin chronicled the tense day-by-day battle for women’s suffrage in Tennessee, describing Gov. Roberts as a “mild-mannered, deliberate teacher-turned-lawyer.” She agreed that his main worry was renomination, but carefully and thoroughly explained that criticisms of Roberts were unfounded.
For one thing, Gov. Roberts was on solid ground when he insisted he could not call a special session of the sitting Tennessee legislature to ratify the controversial amendment until after the 1920 election. The state’s constitution required that the legislature vote on federal amendments only when legislators were elected after an amendment was submitted. This wasn’t a stalling tactic.
Gov. Roberts was pressured by President Woodrow Wilson, but there’s no reason to believe he bowed to the pressure unwillingly. Catherine Kenny, ratification chair for the Tennessee League of Women Voters, had conceived the idea of asking Wilson to wire Gov. Roberts with a “loving message” urging him “to deliver the 36th state for the Democrats.” On June 23, 1920, Wilson indeed telegraphed the Tennessee governor with just such a message, Yellin wrote. The governor still hesitated, wiring the President on June 24 saying he had to consult his state attorney general.
The governor was bombarded by an overwhelming avalanche of messages from both friend and foe, plus an onslaught of newspaper editorials. He finally scheduled the special session for Aug. 9, after he won renomination in the primary but before the general election in November. Suffragette and anti-suffragette forces converged on Nashville from all over the country.
In the midst of the maelstrom, Gov. Roberts was turning out to be the most committed ratificationist of them all.
The anti-suffrage women circulated pamphlets accusing all suffragists of being “atheistic feminists who rewrote the Bible,” “destroyed the home,” and “blackened the honor of Robert E. Lee,” and they liked to label all suffragettes as “she-males.”
Josephine Pearson, president of the state’s branch of the Southern Women’s Rejection League, wrote to supporters across Tennessee, appealing for “active moral backing” to fight three “deadly principles” somehow hiding in the 19th Amendment, Yellin wrote. Pearson claimed that passage of an amendment giving women the right to vote would surrender state sovereignty, give Negro women suffrage, and in some unspecified way further the dreaded prospect of “race equality.”
Prohibition also passed in 1920, and women advocating for temperance usually were suffragists as well. The effort to ban demon rum made perfect sense as another “women’s rights” issue, because drunk men beat up their wives and spent their paychecks on liquor. As a result, the liquor interests backed the anti-suffragist cause.
The railroads and textile manufacturers also backed the “anti’s.” “Southern mill owners believed an inevitable result of woman suffrage would be sociopolitical demands for higher wages for women or, more inconvenient, the enactment of child labor laws,” Yellin wrote.
In the midst of this maelstrom, she noted, Gov. Roberts was turning out to be the most committed ratification supporter of them all. With his nomination secured, Roberts opened up an unofficial caucus room in the State Capitol for legislators favoring the amendment and actively campaigned for its passage.
The battle was not yet won. The measure passed easily in the Senate on Friday, Aug. 13, despite the fact that one senator delivered an impassioned speech railing against “petticoat government,” and “low-neck, high-skirt” suffragists who “knew not what it was to go down in the shade of the valley and bring forth children,” Yellin wrote. Up in the gallery, an indignant suffragette fumed, “I’ve got six children!”
On Monday, the House postponed action. Lobbyists were busy offering political offices, business loans, and lucrative jobs in an attempt to sway legislators. If that didn’t work, they threatened loss of jobs, foreclosure on loans, and withdrawal of political favors. No one knew for sure how anyone was going to vote. Tuesday was lost when state representatives voted to adjourn early, and suffragists feared balky legislators might escape to avoid a vote.
Because of that fear, Yellin wrote, the women set up all-night patrols of hotel corridors and guarded the train station to make sure no legislators disappeared. State representatives who supported ratification got fake messages claiming they must return home because of illness in the family, she said, and sexy-voiced women who claimed to be suffragists were telephoning the room of one legislator to invite him to compromising trysts. Anonymous men also telephoned to make threats on his life. Gov. Roberts responded by assigning a police captain to monitor the legislator’s phone calls, check his mail, and sleep in a connecting room.
Later that night, Gov. Roberts also was threatened when representatives of a group of newspapers warned him they would campaign for his defeat in the November election unless “his men” voted the right way the next day.
On Wednesday, the excitement was palpable as legislators droned on with their arguments for and against women’s suffrage. Then, a motion to table the amendment was defeated. A motion to concur with the Senate’s ratification of the 19th Amendment was called, with the anti-suffrage representatives fully expecting that motion would also be defeated.
Young Harry Burns—remember him?—surprised them all. In his pocket he carried a letter he had received from his mother that morning. “Dear Son: Hurrah, and vote for suffrage!” she wrote.”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. Your Mother.”
The resolution carried, 49 to 47, but the anti-suffrage legislators still wouldn’t give up. A motion to reconsider a vote could be introduced, but only by a legislator on the winning side. One of the losers quickly changed his vote and introduced a motion to reconsider as a way to buy time. The next 72 hours were filled with rallies, more threats, and accusations of bribery. In hopes that a quorum could not be secured for the next vote, 38 of the Tennessee lawmakers boarded a train and traveled over the state line to Decatur, Alabama, where they took refuge in the lobby of the local hotel.
The opposing legislators’ desperate ploy failed, however, and on Tuesday, Aug. 24, Gov. Roberts signed Tennessee’s certificate of ratification and sent it via special delivery registered mail to the U.S. Secretary of State, Bainbridge Colby. I guess we’ll never know for sure what role Roberts’ wife played, but I suspect she shared her mother’s feisty nature.
What did Roberts’ courage win him? Absolutely nothing, in the pragmatist’s view. He’s not mentioned in the history books. Family legend says he was considered for inclusion in Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage but missed the cut. As predicted and as he may have expected, Roberts failed in his bid for re-election and took up the practice of law with his son in Nashville.
I realize I share little DNA with Roberts, although my family has always claimed him (and we even have the family Bible). I do believe, though, that the family stories we tell help make us who we are, and the story of Albert Houston Roberts and his role in ensuring that women could vote certainly influenced me. He left a legacy, a legacy of which his family, his state, and his country can be proud.
Now, as I look around me, I pray that our legislators will become true leaders — and be willing to pay the price.
To learn more:
“Writings of a Tennessee Unionist” by Mary Katherine Sprout, Tennessee Historical Quarterly, September and December, 1950.
“The Wizard of Overton” by Kenneth Braden, Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Fall, 1984.
“Countdown in Tennessee, 1920” by Carol Yellin, American Heritage Magazine, December 1978.