One hundred years ago this month, the Oklahoma legislature voted to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote. This was not the deciding vote. That would come six months later in Tennessee.
Believe it or not, I wasn’t around for either historic vote. A century later, I have a chance to participate in a commemorative Suffrage March and Rally at 11 a.m., Feb. 22, at the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. Everybody is invited to join — all ages and genders — and encouraged to wear white, the color associated with suffragettes, and to carry signs.
I might also carry a yellow rose because yellow was the suffragettes’ emblematic color for tiny flags they waved and yellow roses they pressed on lawmakers to declare their support. I know because I visited the grand Hermitage Hotel in downtown Nashville where both suffragettes (Suffs) and anti-suffragettes (Antis) headquartered for six weeks in August 1920 to lobby Tennessee lawmakers. They knew Tennessee could be the pivotal vote for the amendment to become law. I also read Elaine Weiss’ thrilling book “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote.”
Antis wore white, too, that hot summer, but carried red roses. The Antis were a tough group, defending what they saw as Southern culture, states’ rights and national morality. An Anti flyer said, “A vote for federal suffrage is a vote for organized female nagging forever.”
Both Suffs and Antis dogged and harangued the state legislators, and so did corporate lobbyists, especially those who feared female voters might interfere with child labor laws and the liquor industry. The deciding yea vote was cast by Harry T. Burn, the youngest member of the Tennessee General Assembly, who was persuaded by a letter from his mother.
My stepdaughter Cinnamon lives in Nashville and took me to lunch in the Hermitage, where I had meatloaf, mashed potatoes and collard greens. Collard greens. How Southern is that?
Cinnamon legally changed her name to Samantha about 30 years ago. How independent is that? I have never acknowledged the name change. We are both independent progeny of suffragettes. She is a good-natured child who answers cheerfully to either Cinnamon, Samantha or a handful of nicknames. Cinnamon/Samantha is proof liberated women can be of good cheer.
I’ve seen plenty of firsts for women. The late Tulsa philanthropist Frannie O’Hornett told me about being summoned for jury duty and how shocked the court was when she appeared. “Women can’t serve on a jury in Oklahoma,” someone told her. “We thought Frances was a man’s name.” Women could not serve on jury duty in Oklahoma until the 1950s.
Norma Eagleton, the first woman elected to a voting position on the Tulsa City Commission and to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission in the late 1970s, told me about deliberately wearing a dress — an Ultrasuede, navy dress — while campaigning and on the job. A dress was non-threatening, she said.
Don’t I know it. I was working at the University of Tulsa in the ’70s when pantsuits for women were controversial. We female staff and faculty had to petition the administration for permission to wear pantsuits to work. As I recall, the answer came down yes, but only once a week. Yet that was also the time when Germaine Greer was a visiting scholar and Marilyn French, “The Women’s Room,” was a guest writer.
I was going around town at the time giving talks about women’s lib to bemused social groups. The women’s movement was part of the civil rights movement, revolutionary and confusing. “If I open a door for a woman,” a man asked me, “am I being a sexist?” At the Tulsa Tennis Club, women players might be asked to vacate the court if men wanted to play. In April 1977, the Oklahoma Senate passed unanimously a resolution commending Anita Bryant’s Florida anti-homosexual campaign “to protect the children.”
Oh, it was a bumpy time, but not as rocky as 1920 when votes for women were in the balance. Beware, the Antis warned, life will be changed. Thank God it was.