A major political battle that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the fight over women’s right to vote. In Memphis, Martha Elizabeth Moore Allen was one of the city’s most prominent suffragettes. She was born in in 1851 in Plymouth, Indiana, and later married Jacob Davis Allen. Mrs. Allen first got interested in the women’s suffrage movement after she heard Susan B. Anthony speak at a rally in the 1870s. Her active involvement in suffrage work began in 1889 after she and her husband moved to Nashville. After they moved to Memphis, Mrs. Allen joined the Equal Suffrage Association in 1904. The organization folded shortly thereafter, and she became the first president of a suffrage group called the Equal Suffrage League from 1906-1912. Her involvement was not limited to the city, but rather extended to organizing the suffrage movement throughout Tennessee, and one of the organization’s first moves was to enlist the support of state newspapers.
These activities culminated in the final fight over the ratification of the 19th amendment to the Constitution. Congress passed the amendment in 1919, but it need to be approved by 36 of the 48 existing state legislatures by the spring of 1920. As the deadline approached, 35 states had ratified the amendment and six had rejected it. Of the remaining seven states that needed to vote, only Tennessee and Delaware were potential yes votes. In a special legislative session, Harry Burn, a representative from McMinn County in east Tennessee, voted for ratification despite having previously voted twice to table the amendment. He changed his mind after receiving a letter from his mother that read, “Don’t forget to be a good boy,” and urging him to vote for ratification. With his yes vote, Tennessee became the “perfect 36,” and women throughout the country gained the right to vote.
This victory was possible because of the work of suffragettes who rallied, fundraised and lobbied for decades. While some of these women, including Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt, became national leaders and household names, there were also many women like Mrs. J.D. Allen who worked on the local and state levels and whose efforts were crucial in getting the 19th amendment ratified. Many artifacts in the Pink Palace’s women’s suffrage collection belonged to Mrs. Allen.
Caroline Mitchell Carrico works in the Exhibit Department at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum. She has a graduate degree in history from The University of Memphis, and her favorite artifacts are the Cold War civil defense supplies.