A history of the political battle in Tennessee in 1920 over the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The approval by the Tennessee legislature would meet the requisite number of states to provide women the vote in all elections. The efforts by women—and plenty of men—to secure universal suffrage date back to the beginning of the Republic, and journalist Weiss (Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army of America in the Great War, 2008) weaves useful historical context throughout the book. But the tight focus on a few weeks in Nashville makes for a compelling narrative, marred only by an overabundance of detail about the many battles between the suffragists and their opponents. What strengthens the narrative are the author’s minibiographies of primary characters in this “furious campaign”—Carrie Chapman Catt (“it was [her] job—more precisely, her life’s mission—to guide American women to the promised land of political freedom”), Alice Paul, Josephine Pearson, and Presidents Warren G. Harding and Woodrow Wilson—as well as of the less-well-known players (mostly Tennessee politicians and lobbyists). Pearson is the most visible of the women who opposed suffrage, believing that it posed a danger “to the American family, white supremacy, states’ rights, and cherished southern traditions.” Perhaps the most famous of the anti-suffragists was muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell, whom Weiss chronicles briefly. The author clearly explains how the opposition by women—a stance that will surprise some modern readers—derived partly from their desire to be sheltered from politics, partly from the negative influence of men in their lives, and partly from racism (providing ballots to white women would open the floodgates of black women voters).
Although the outcome of the Tennessee drama is obvious—after all, we all know the amendment was ratified—Weiss expertly builds the suspense, and the closeness of the eventual vote by the Tennessee legislature adds to the drama.