Photos taken by Thomas Witcher
Tennessee is uniquely steeped in history from the women’s suffrage movement as the final state needed for ratification. In places such as the Hermitage Hotel pro-suffrage advocates met to strategize. The history seeped into its walls is impossible to ignore. Citizens such as Memphis’ Ida B. Wells fought for a better world, a more inclusive world where all were equal, regardless of gender or race.
However, many women who organized to secure the vote did so for less than inclusive reasons.
If granted the right to vote, some suffragettes including Susan B. Anthony, possibly one of the most iconic suffrage figures, believed that this right should not be granted to any women of color.
While black women were technically granted the right to vote in 1920, their right was only solidified in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Asian women also waited until 1965 to cast their ballots. However, it is important to note that the Voting Rights Act was not a magical cure that ended racism in voting.
WOC still had many troubles when attempting to cast their vote, and it would be laughable to claim that even today, things are perfect. While it is important to commend the good works done by suffragettes to secure the right to vote for their gender, it is necessary to condemn the racist actors working under the backdrop of hatred.
The women’s suffrage monument situated in Market Square is recognizable to all who have passed it. It features three important figures of the Tennessee women’s rights movement: Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, Anne Dallas Dudley and Lizzie Crozier French. Each of these women represents a region of Tennessee, from west to east.
Lizzie Crozier French was born in the city of Knoxville just shy of the Civil War. Her father was a prominent state representative. French was educated in the best institutions her family could afford. Women at UT partially owe their attendance to Lizzie French, as she argued in front of the State Teachers’ Assembly for the coeducation of women at the University (Appalachia Bear). French was widely considered to be a fantastic orator, and it was this skill that forged her into the influential suffragist she would become.
Anne Dallas Dudley was born in the shadow of the civil war in 1876. She was raised in Nashville and began the Nashville Equal Suffrage Association where she served as its first president. Dudley was instrumental in challenging the widespread belief that suffragettes were “unmarried, man-hating, harlots” by posing with her children for newspaper articles which were then vastly spread. Dudley was the first female delegate to the Democratic national convention. Among her many other accomplishments, she was known to cross racial lines and encouraged black women to join her in fighting for the right to vote (Iowa State University).
Dudley and French were exceptional women who certainly deserve their space in the history of women’s rights. They were flawed, as all humans are, but their lives were dedicated to uplifting other women and proving they were just as capable as men. The final woman featured in this piece, however, cannot be claimed to possess the same positive qualities.
Elizabeth Avery Merriwether was a suffrage activist for women. However, her views on race were vile, even for the time. Merriwether was born just outside of Memphis and zealously supported the Confederacy her entire life.
Merriwether was an author who passionately spread the ideas of the “lost cause” theory. This is the set of beliefs that assert the South knew they would lose to the North in a war. However, their honor forced them to participate in the fight. Further, she subscribed to the belief that slavery was beneficial to black people, who she made characters in her works, describing them as children who needed white people to guide them through life.
Her husband, Minor Meriwether, shared her racist beliefs. He served as an officer in the Confederate army. Although it has never been confirmed as true, it is theorized by some sources that the Merriwethers hosted early Ku Klux Klan meetings at their home in Memphis (Historic Memphis). What is known to be true is that the couple was very close with Nathan Bedford Forrest as well as the infamous Jefferson Davis. Meriwether was so interlaced in the Confederacy and its prominent members that her son was named Lee, in honor of the former general (Historic Memphis).
So it is quite duplicitous for Meriwether to be known as such an admired member of the women’s suffrage movement when she struggled even harder to keep another group in subjugation.
The monument in Market Square was unveiled in 2006, too far into the modern age for one to claim that there was no way to know of Meriwether’s appalling beliefs and too recently to claim that ‘it was a different time.’
The organizers should have known better than to encase in bronze the memory of an individual so in love with the beliefs of the Confederacy she named her own son after Robert E. Lee.