Celebrating 104 years of women voting in Knoxville

Beth KinnaneDowntown, Our Town Stories

Judging by the front page headlines in what was then The Knoxville Sentinel of September 8, 1919, you’d have no idea of the significant history that happened just two days prior. Other than the weather cat snippet from “JoJo Says” there wasn’t a single headline about anything that was happening in Knoxville or the rest of the state of Tennessee.

The biggest story was about some of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa’s supporters being soundly defeated (to put it nicely) and 800 of their horses being carted off to Galveston, Texas. There was also news of Gen. John J. Pershing’s warm welcome in New York City, cholera in Petrograd (the once and future St. Petersburg in the once and future Russian), and Babe Ruth breaking the home run record while he was still playing for the Boston Red Sox.

One small article hinted at what was already happening here: in Minnesota, the legislature had finally ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote. The deed was already done here, however, as Tennessee was the deciding 36th vote needed for the amendment to pass less than a month prior. And on Sept. 6 of that year, women in Knoxville were able to go to the polls for the first time, for the city primaries and the mayoral election.

Results of the city primary, Sept. 8, 1919. E.W. Neal was elected mayor. KNS digital archives.

There was no coverage the day after on Sept 7 as there wasn’t a Sunday paper at the time. Yes, that election day was on a Saturday, as was the general election that followed on Sept. 20 only two weeks later. The results of that primary were reported on page 6 of the Sentinel. As a sidenote, in 1919 with a population of roughly 77,000, 14,109 votes were cast for mayor. In 2023 with a population nearing 200,000, 16,394 votes were cast for mayor. It’s not a good look, Knoxville.

While there wasn’t anything reported about women voting for the first time in that Sept. 8 issue, there was on Sept. 6, the day of the primary. The headline read “Women at Polls Early to Vote:”

Seldom before in the history of Knoxville elections has such interest been displayed at the polls. Up until noon “mere man” had become an onlooker. Around each of the 31 voting precincts of the city were clustered groups of men; silently watching, with ever growing curiosity, the steady march of women to the polls.

A cartoon from Sept. 8, 1919. KNS digital archives

The article also listed the first woman to arrive to vote at each precinct (see KnoxTNToday’s story about one of those voters here) while also noting that one new voter found using a community pencil to complete her ballot was about as sanitary as sharing a community toothbrush. There was competition to be first woman at each precinct, according to another article on the same page, but not in any way that got out of hand.

The first women to vote in Knoxville. KNS digital archives.

In several of the wards the first woman voter was besieged by candidate rivals in their attempt to be the first to congratulate her.

In the end, there really was no novelty to the novelty, other than the presence of women voting on that day more than doubled the primary turnout from four years prior.

Only one of my grandmothers was born with the right to vote. Julia May would have celebrated her 100th birthday this year if she was still with us. Though there are, no doubt, a handful or two of women in this state who were born without it, that time is pretty much passed, of women born prior to the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Tomorrow is the 104th anniversary of the first women voting in Knoxville.

Beth Kinnane writes a history feature for KnoxTNToday.com. It’s published each Tuesday and is one of our best-read features.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel digital archives, Sept. 6-8. 1919.

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