Illumination Night Lights the Spark

A look back to 100 years ago when women’s suffrage and the right to vote began a long, winding road to end female repression. What was happening at UTC then? 

We know all the big-name women voting activists: Susan B. Anthony, Ida B. Wells, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But what about the local college activists in 1920, at what was then the University of Chattanooga? While we may not know all of their names, their activism made news─from debates, to wanted ads, to campus outcries.  

In June 1916, The University Echo reported an Illumination Night where women students at the University of Chattanooga lit lanterns on campus. Among the groups in attendance were female sophomore suffragists wearing yellow sashes and shouting, “Down with the tyrant man!” Quickly, they were ushered away by a group of male sophomores–not the first occurrence of suffragists voices being repressed by men on campus. Though women on campus had the opportunity to speak out about the suffrage movement, their voices were often quickly silenced or rebutted by men. 

National Archives, 1918; Women suffragettes enrolling their willingness to aid their country when hostilities broke out between Germany and the United States.

In November 1907, the Franklin Lookout orators, a student organization, held a debate about women’s suffrage. Secretary Ruth Evans began the discussion in favor of women’s rights, and her speech was described by a reporter from The University Echo “as a pretty piece of composition.” In contrast, the same reporter described a “Mr. Tyler” as making a speech on women’s suffrage that was “fluent, earnest and, at times, humorous,” in which he argued that women should not go into politics because of their “fickle and emotional nature.” This would not be the first or last time that “a fickle and emotional nature” would be used by men, or even women, as an argument against women having the right to vote.  

In 1910, female student and suffrage opponent Ruby Wolfe declared, “Women’s suffrage is simply a spark set aglow by only old maids and fanned into flame by wives of henpecked husbands.” Other female students, like Orva Cleveland, questioned why women would even want to vote: “Women have as much right to vote as men, but why do they want to?”   

That question arose at the beginning of the movement, stemming back to the 1800s and the abolition movement. “Suffrage is intertwined with coverture; so is slavery. When we finally see the first case that begins to overturn coverture, it is based in slavery,” says Michelle Deardoff, Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Government at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “Coverture comes from English common law, and it is the notion that when a man and woman marry, the two become one, and the one becomes male.”  

Without independence, women were unable to make their own decisions─having the right to vote would allow women to amplify their voices. Women activists have paved the way for decades for all women to have the right to vote, including multiple generations working together.  

Women activists have paved the way for decades for all women to have the right to vote, including multiple generations working together.  

While in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed and it did give the right to vote to all women, Deardoff says, “Almost immediately we see a shift with Jim Crow.” Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the southern U.S. until the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 lifted those restrictions.  

So, 100 years since the Constitution was amended to ensure the right of women to vote, how is the women’s suffrage movement being recognized at UTC? For this 100th anniversary year, English composition students have a common reader, The Women’s Suffrage Movement, a compilation of essays and speeches written mostly by women before and since the movement began. This collection teaches students’ personal accounts. The 19th Amendment centennial is not only a celebratory milestone, it’s a time to reflect on the country’s progress—how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go. 

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