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In High Heels & Pearls

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

The Role of Women in the Creation of Metropolitan Government



The 1950s and 1960s were a “golden age” of women’s political activism in American politics. Immediately after women won the right to vote in 1920, their political activities had been focused on legislative remedies to solve problems of society or to simply encourage women to vote. Nashville women quickly began to expand their participation in the political arena, and by the mid-1920s, they were regularly appointed to city boards and commissions. Local women also became active in political campaigns and had a greater voice in the affairs of governing the city. When the votes were counted on June 28, 1962, and it was evident that the referendum to approve the charter to create Metropolitan government had passed, most observers gave a large share of the credit for the success to the women’s campaign. That campaign was only one aspect of the charter in which women played a significant role.


Women had been involved in a variety of roles since the earliest discussions about consolidation began. In 1951 and 1952, the General Assembly approved the creation of a joint Nashville/Davidson County planning commission-the Community Services Commission-to study the serious problems from the county’s rapid growth after World War II. Molly Todd, the commission’s only woman, took an active part in the commission’s final report and gave numerous speeches about the commission’s conclusions. Todd had moved to Nashville with her husband shortly before World War II began. When she realized that Nashville did not have a chapter of the League of Women Voters, she organized a group of women who had been working together as a study club and became the chapter’s first president. From that point forward, Molly Todd’s name was associated with progressive causes and reforms. She was one of four women elected as delegates to the state’s 1953 constitutional convention, and she later became one of the plaintiffs in the landmark Supreme Court decision of Baker V. Carr. Throughout her adult life, she attended countless meetings in support of good government and human service issues. When the charters were written to create Metropolitan government, Todd was among the most tireless supporters of the new plan.


When the first charter commission was formed in 1957, Nashville Mayor Ben West appointed attorney Rebecca M. Thomas to the commission. Thomas had been the first woman in Davidson County to serve as a Special Judge in Circuit Court and was a highly respected member of the local bar association. At the commission’s first meeting, Thomas, the commission’s only female member, was elected to be its secretary. Thomas supported the second charter in spite of the fact that she had been appointed to the commission by West who opposed the second charter. Before the referendum to approve the second charter, Thomas appeared with eight other commission members to answer questions and promote the benefits of a unified city-county government.


One of the major reasons for the second charter campaign’s success was an active and highly organized women’s campaign in which Molly Todd joined forces with Guynell Sanders, another energetic political activist and secretary of the Madison Chamber of Commerce. As consolidation supporters considered why the 1958 charter had failed, they agreed that supporters had not treated the charter as a political campaign. The League of Women Voters provided educational materials on the benefits of Metropolitan government but shied away from taking action beyond explaining how the new government would work. They did not actively campaign in support of the charter, even though some of the League’s individual members were active in the Citizens for Better Government that supported the first charter.


As soon as the General Assembly passed the private act to create another charter commission, pro-consolidation activists organized the Citizens committee for better Government (CCBG). James H. Roberson, an insurance man and a long-time political organizer, headed the campaign with financial support from individuals. Roberson and his committee understood the importance of a block-by-block organization to mobilize support. Roberson then recruited Guynell Sanders to head a women’s division. Sanders and Roberson understood the importance of a precinct-by- precinct, block-by-block campaign if they were to reach every voter in Davidson County.


While the commission wrote the charter, Sanders called a meeting of the leaders of key women’s groups in the county. Molly Todd and Barbara Kuhn, president of the Nashville League of Women Voters, attended this organizational meeting. They agreed that they would immediately encourage women’s groups to send representatives to all the public commission meetings and express their views.” From the beginning, they realized that they needed to recruit women who were “average” citizens-active in their children’s schools, religious and civic organizations. Within four months, numerous groups joined the League of Women Voters in support of Metropolitan government, including the Council of Jewish Women, the Civic Committee on Public Education, the Education Council, and three Business and Professional Women’s Clubs.


By May 1962, Sanders and Roberson’s organizational efforts had recruited more than 1,500 people who worked as volunteer canvassers, a majority of which were women. The canvassers knocked on doors and made phone calls day after day as the June 28 referendum drew near. They carried “fact-sheets” consisting of mimeographed pages stapled together and describing the benefits of consolidated government. They praised the charter and criticized the existing system of city-county government.


The League of Women Voters had been interested in consolidated government as a progressive reform since the writing of the first charter. Led by Barbara Kuhn, twenty League members established their own pro-Metro support activities. Kuhn emphasized the financial savings under the new plan of government. Speaking at a League meeting, Kuhn said, “Although tax increases are necessary in both city and county, the tax rise - if and when necessary - under one government will be much less than under our present two governments.” She went on to say that there would be “a more equitable distribution of taxes and more efficiency and economy in government” with Metro. In addition to the canvassing, League members gave numerous speeches about the benefits of Metro and held hundreds of coffees in individual homes, speaking to neighbors and friends about the benefits of the new system. On June 27, the day before the referendum, League members worked throughout the day in all area shopping centers passing out materials and automobile stickers.


The black community was divided over the benefits of Metropolitan government for African Americans. Lurelia Freeman of the Language Department at Tennessee A&L ad Mrs. C. M. Hayes, the president of the local NAACP chapter, joined a group of African American leaders in speaking on behalf of the charter.


Two educational groups made predominantly of women also supported metropolitan government -- the Civic Committee on Public Education, a non-teachers’ association for school improvement, and the Education Council, a teachers’ organization made from what became known as the Education Council, headed by Robert Bogen. During the campaign, this group sponsored seminars, emphasizing how a unified school system could improve public education at over thirty schools. The Council of Jewish Women, headed by Lois Fox, was also concerned about education. It too provided canvassers who made calls in person and by telephone in support of the charter.


On the day of the referendum, women supporters continued making phone calls urging people to vote in support of Metropolitan government. As soon as the polls closed that evening, there was a feeling of optimism. Gathered in the CCBG headquarters at the Stahlman Building, the supporters soon heard the good news. With an army of female volunteers, their campaign had won passage of the charter. James Roberson gave the women credit, saying, “The housewives did the job walking up and down with their fact sheets.”


When the new government went into effect on April 1, 1963, only one woman was on the new Metropolitan Council, but that number increased with each successive election. Today, Vice-Mayor Diane Neighbors presides over a Metro Council with eleven female members. Rebecca Thomas, Guynell Sanders, Molly Todd, Barbara Kuhn, and countless others paved the way for the generation of women who followed their path of female political activism.


Epilogue


These women paved the way for others to follow, and there are many female politicians that deserve recognition for their efforts to continue the proud legacy of the women who came before them. One such individual is Nashville’s state Senator Thelma Harper, who has served the city of Nashville as both a Council member and as a state senator from the 19th District. Senator Harper has served Nashville as a state senator since Tennessee’s 96th General Assembly in 1989-90. Prior to this tenure, Senator Harper served on Nashville’s Metro Council for eight years, representing both women and African Americans with her noble determination to support those most in need of support - the underserved and at-risk populations in Nashville.



A second woman of whom all Nashvillians should be proud is Representative Beth Harwell, our current Speaker of the House in the Tennessee House of Representatives. Rep. Harwell has served Davidson County since her 1988 election, and she is the first woman elected to the position of Speaker of the House in the history of our state. While on opposite sides of the political spectrum from Senator Harper, they nonetheless share similar interests in ensuring the safety, equality and well-being of those individuals who most need our protection and security. Senator Harper and Rep. Harwell are both excellent examples of Tennessee’s proud history of female political leaders, and the future generation of female leaders has been given excellent examples of women’s ability to lead with honesty, forthrightness, and determination, all the while upholding the example set by those who came before.


Celebrate Nashville - Metro Charter

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