Elizabeth Avery Meriwether (1824 - 1916)

Elizabeth Avery Meriwether (1824-1916), Tennessee suffragist, temperance activist, publisher and author, was born in Bolivar on January 19, 1824. Her father, Nathan Avery was a physician and farmer, while her mother Rebecca Rivers Avery was the daughter of a Virginia planter. Financial problems led the family to move to Memphis around 1835. Nathan’s death in 1846, and Rebecca’s in 1847, caused economic crisis for the siblings. Brother Tom sought outside employment to support his four sisters, and Elizabeth operated a school for some 25 students in the family’s dining room.

In 1852 she married Minor Meriwether, a railroad civil engineer. Carrying out the wishes of Minor’s late father, the couple sold part of Minor’s inherited land to free his slaves and repatriate them to Liberia. She characterized the act as abolitionist, although she later accepted a gift of a household slave from her brother. Both Meriwethers spoke of their marriage as strong and happy. Elizabeth bore three sons: Avery, in 1857; Rivers, in 1859; and Lee (the namesake of General Robert E. Lee), in 1862.

With the onset of the Civil War Minor Meriwether joined the officers corps of the Confederate army. He served with General Nathan Bedford Forrest; Elizabeth was vocal in advocacy of the Confederate cause, and defiant during the Union occupation. General William T. Sherman ordered her to leave Memphis in December 1862, weeks before the birth of her third son. She recounted the experience in her 1863 short story, “The Refugee.”

After the war Minor Meriwether purchased a modest Memphis home for his family on the current site of the Peabody Hotel. He worked with Nathan Bedford Forrest to establish the Ku Klux Klan in Memphis; an early Klan organizational meeting took place in Elizabeth’s kitchen. Elizabeth Meriwether nettled occupation forces to reinstate the title to her girlhood home, successfully arguing that her 1851 “abolitionist” stand invalidated its seizure. Thus recognized as a property owner and tax payer, she obtained a voter registration in 1872. 

Nashville Union and American Newspaper
Nashville, TN - January 31, 1872 
She published a small-circulation newspaper, The Tablet, during part of 1872. It featured her unorthodox views on woman suffrage, divorce law, and pay equity for women teachers. 

In 1876 she made one of the first public suffragist addresses in Memphis. Elizabeth and her sister-in-law, Lide Meriwether championed a number of reform causes. Both were active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and belonged to the National Woman Suffrage Association. Elizabeth served as a national officer of NAWSA in 1886. She presented unsuccessful suffrage petitions in both the Democrat and Republican national conventions in 1880.

Inspired by news of Susan B. Anthony's attempted 1872 vote, Elizabeth Avery Meriwether dared to vote in the 1876 presidential election and reported..."when I tested the matter I was allowed to cast my ballot. Whether it was counted I cannot say. But counting my ballot was not important; what was important was to focus public attention to the monstrous injustice of including educated women with felons and lunatics as persons denied the right of suffrage."

Elizabeth Meriwether’s published writing includes two novels, The Master of Red Leaf (1872) and Black and White (1883), and a play, The Ku Klux Klan, or The Carpetbagger in New Orleans (1877). Non-fiction works include Facts and Falsehoods About the War on the South (1904), published under the pseudonym George Edmonds, and the Sowing of the Swords, of The Soul of the ‘Sixties (1910). An informal memoir, Recollections of 92 Years, was serialized in many Tennessee papers in 1916 and was published by her son Lee in 1958. Meriwether’s writing idealized the Confederate cause and the traditional race ideology of the “Old South.”

Elizabeth Meriwether died in St. Louis on November 4, 1916; several months earlier, each of the major political parties had adopted campaign planks urging passage of a woman suffrage amendment.

Source:  Adapted from text written by Sally S. Hermsdorfer, Memphis. Reprinted with permission.

Aug. 26, 1920 | 19th Amendment Takes Effect, Giving Women Right To Vote

The 19th Amendment, mandating full suffrage in all states, was first introduced to Congress in 1878. Forty-one years later, it was passed by both houses of Congress on June 4, 1919, and sent to the states for ratification.

Tennessee was the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, giving it a two-thirds majority it needed to become law.

The 19th Amendment reads:

1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

2. Congress shall have power to enforce this Article by appropriate legislation.

Tennessee Woman's Suffrage Memorial - August 26, 2006

The life size bronze statue commemorates Lizzie Crozier French, Anne Dallas Dudley and Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, Tennessee civil-rights pioneers who fought for passage of the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote in 1920. 

 This statue was erected in Market Square Mall in Knoxville, Tennessee 86 years after the ratification of the 19th amendment. The statue honors three women who led this fight from the three sections of Tennessee. 

Elizabeth Avery Meriwether is shown on the left representing West Tennessee (born in Bolivar and spend most of her life in Memphis until she and her family moved to St. Louis to avoid the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878).
A Lasting Memorial, the Statue Inscriptions

"All honor to women, the first disenfranchised class in history who unaided by any political party, won enfranchisement by its own effort alone, and achieved the victory without the shedding of a drop of human blood."
~ Harriot Stanton Blatch

"The young women of today - free to study, to speak, to write, to choose their occupation - should remember that every inch of this freedom was bought for them at a great price... the debt that each generation owes to the past, it must pay to the future."
~ Abigail Scott Dunaway

While she never lived to see the culmination of her efforts in the ratification of the 19th amendment, Elizabeth Avery Meriwether is still being honored and remembered for the role she played in Tennessee's Woman's Suffrage movement a 100 years later after her death!