Josephine Pearson: accomplished and antisuffrage

September 15, 2012 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: news.

Josephine Pearson was an educated, accomplished woman. She was also an antisuffragist.

Pearson led the antisuffrage lobbyists during the Battle of Nashville in the weeks before the Tennessee Legislature ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. Because of that, she has been tossed into the dustbin of women’s history.

She deserves a better fate.

(In the photo, she is the woman on the right.)


” . . . when I stepped, in the early evening into the Library, where sat my beloved parent. When [I was] as usual kissing her brow — she grasped my hand — showing me this her lat article, saying: ‘Daughter, when I’m gone — if the Susan B. Anthony Amendment issue reaches Tennessee — promise me, you will take up the opposition, in My Memory!’ I was, of course, dazed! . . . as I bent, again to impress the vow upon her forehead, I answered ‘Yes! God helping, I’ll keep the faith, My Mother!'” (quoted in Wheeler, Votes for Women, 229)

This excerpt from “My Story,” melodramatic as it is, provides some insight into the burdens Pearson bore as she undertook the battle against suffrage in the summer of 1920. Her parents had passed away, and she was living in the family home in Monteagle, TN, not destitute but neither in splendor.

Pearson was born in 1868, the daughter of a minister, and was educated far beyond the norm. She studied at a number of colleges including Vanderbilt University and the University of Missouri. She served as a high school principal and taught English in South Carolina and Tennessee. She was dean and chair of philosophy at Christian College in Columbia, Missouri, for five years before returning to Monteagle in 1914 to take care of her aging parents.

She was recruited by Nashville attorney John Vertrees to replace his wife as the president of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage and also held the title of president of the Southern Women’s League for Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. When the suffrage fight was joined in Nashville in the summer of 1920, she was called by Vertrees to come to Nashville to take charge of the fight for the antisuffragists.

When the fight in Nashville ended, she returned to Monteagle but eventually left there to take up teaching posts in Virginia and Memphis. She died in 1944, apparently never conceding that suffrage was a good thing for women.

There is much more to be said about Josephine Pearson. She was a remarkable women, and attention should be paid.


Elna Green in her book Southern Strategies put together the following information about Pearson talking about her life as a single, career woman — not the one that she as an anitsuffragist idealized:

From Southern Strategies: Southern women and the women suffrage question (64-66???) by Elna Green:

[QUOTED MATERIAL] The “motherhood” theme appears in the writings of other single antisuffragists as well. In a speech to her state antisuffrage association in 1920, Josephine Pearson of Tennessee told her coworkers that she considered the antisuffrage movement to be a “Holy War, a crusade in memory of my Mother for Southern Motherhood, through which her guiding spirit has led me all the way!” Pearson defined motherhood as “the highest Coronation of Women.” Furthermore, the final test of suffrage for women, she asserted, would be whether “it strengthens or weakens Woman’s motherhood—physical, intellectual, spiritual!”38

[QUOTED MATERIAL] Like Mildred Rutherford, Josephine Pearson made her living as a teacher of young women. And like Rutherford, she portrayed her career as a substitute for the mothering role that she could not fulfill in the traditional way: “I have given my life-work for what I felt were the highest educational standards, ideals, progressively for my sex. I do not believe that the object of woman’s creation is merely to produce commodities and oddities, or to amass learning. I believe that the highest education for women is, to yet, undergo radical scholastic and vocational changes; that real womanhood and her FAMILY may not perish from the Earth!”3940 Pearson hastened to add, however, that her career as a substitute mother could never be as richly rewarding as true motherhood. Sensitive to the fact that her own life contradicted her prescriptions, she dramatically confessed her unhappiness at her unmarried condition: “Do you, women peers of my native state, surmise, that any sacrifices ever made, or ambitions of a professional career ever attained, have recompensed the loss of love and companionship of home for the desolated spinster; no matter if her life-service is given voluntary?”

[QUOTED MATERIAL] Just five years after she gave this speech, Pearson received an offer of marriage. Letters from her friends and relatives giving their opinion of the proposed match offer a rare glimpse into the private world of courtship and marriage, and into the values and priorities of one antisuffrage woman. Pearson’s friend Emmy Roberts encouraged Pearson to marry the unnamed doctor who had proposed: “I think you are foolish not to accept his offer of marriage. . . . You must not hold his past secrets against him—men are not perfect and all make mistakes, so forgive him.”41 Later, after Pearson had decided to reject the offer of marriage (for reasons which remain unstated in the extant correspondence), a cousin wrote of her approval of the decision: “I am glad you are not going to marry him for unless you love him enough to sacrifice everything for him, I don’t believe you would be happy.” 42 While the cousin acknowledged that marriage to a doctor might solve Pearson’s financial difficulties,43 she understood that Pearson valued her independence and her chosen career, both of which marriage might curtail. Regardless of her expressed defense of marriage and motherhood, Pearson chose career and independence instead.44


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