Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Lide (or Lida) Parker Smith Meriwether, 1829-1913
By Margaret M. Caffrey, Associate Professor Emeritus, Dept. of History, University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee
President of the Tennessee Woman's Christian Temperance Union; President of the Memphis Equal Rights Association; Organizer and speaker for the National Woman Suffrage Association and the National American Woman Suffrage Association; President of the Tennessee Equal Rights Association; Honorary President of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association
Lide Meriwether of Memphis was a key pioneer in the early organization of the suffrage movement in Tennessee, particularly in the 1880s and 1890s. Lide brought to the suffrage movement a background working for causes that particularly benefited women, especially the then unpopular rehabilitation of prostitutes beginning in the 1870s and the formation of the Tennessee Woman's Christian Temperance Union (TWCTU) beginning in the 1880s.
Born Lide Parker Smith on a visit from Virginia to Columbus, Ohio on October 16, 1829, she was raised in Virginia and later attended the Washington Female Seminary in Washington, Pennsylvania, a school modeled on Emma Willard's Troy Female Seminary in New York. At the age of 17, Lide went west to Memphis with her older sister, Lucy Virginia Smith, where they both taught school. There Lide met and married her husband, Niles Meriwether, in 1855, and they had three children: May, who died as a child, Mattie, and Lucy Virginia. She worked with women's organizations in Memphis and as a writer while her children were young, but saw herself mainly as a homemaker. Once the young women were established, she became active in reform at the state level. Elected Tennessee Woman's Christian Temperance Union (TWCTU) state president in 1884, a position she would hold for 13 years, by 1886 she began active suffrage work within the TWCTU. Franchise Departments, in which members worked for the vote for women, were an optional choice in the national WCTU, one which most southern unions resisted. Holding meetings in women's homes, she began a quiet campaign to convince her members of the need. Finally, after three years, in 1889 she succeeded in adding a Franchise Department as one of the works of the WCTU in Tennessee, along with a solid suffrage plank in the state WCTU convention platform by unanimous vote. That same year, 1889, Lide became one of the organizers of the Memphis Equal Rights Association and became its first president.
While working quietly through the TWCTU, she also more openly organized for suffrage. Activist Elizabeth Lyle Saxon, an ally of Lide's in Memphis, was tapped by the National Woman Suffrage Association to organize for suffrage in Tennessee in 1885. In 1886, Saxon left Tennessee and the National Woman Suffrage Association chose Lide to succeed her. She had become known in the WCTU as a brilliant orator. By 1891 she was attending the newly formed National American Woman Suffrage Association's (NAWSA) national conventions and became a nationally-known speaker and organizer throughout the 1890s. One story has it that when Rose Cleveland, President Grover Cleveland's sister, met her, she said, "'Now, let thy servant depart in peace; for I have seen Lide Meriwether.'"
In 1892 she was invited by Susan B. Anthony to testify, along with women from 26 states, before the House Judiciary Committee of Congress for woman suffrage—the majority of committee members were from the South and listened most to Lide, "whose wit would have convulsed a tombstone." She had been chosen for the NAWSA Special Committee on the Columbian Exposition (the Chicago World's Fair) and in 1893 participated in the women's events by giving her best-known talk, "Organized Motherhood." This was one of the first attempts at "maternalism," trying to create a legitimate public role for women because of their interests and duties as mothers.
In 1894 Lide participated in a series of ten suffrage lectures in towns across Michigan with Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt (then Carrie Lane Chapman), Clara Colby of Nebraska, and Anna Howard Shaw. The next year, 1895, she persuaded Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt to come to Memphis and raise enthusiasm for suffrage, where they spoke to both European-American and African-American audiences. This was also the year of the Arena magazine controversy, in which a Tennessee woman, Mrs. J. R. Watson, wrote an article titled, "The Attitude of Southern Women on the Suffrage Question," which portrayed most southern women as against having the vote. The editor of the Arena sought a counterpoint article from a suffragist to balance the debate. The author, Mrs. Joseph K. Henry of Kentucky, wrote to Lide for material from Tennessee, and Lide created and sent out a petition to the president of every suffrage club and temperance union in Tennessee, asking them to send signed replies back in two weeks.
The petition read as follows:
"We, the undersigned women of Tennessee, do and should want the ballot because—
1. Being 21 years old, we object to being classified with minors.
2. Born in America and loyal to her institutions, we protest against being made perpetual aliens.
3. Costing the treasuries of our counties nothing, we protest against acknowledging the male pauper as our superior.
4. Being obedient to law, we protest against the statute which classes us with the convict and makes the pardoned criminal our political superior.
5. Being sane, we object to being classified with the lunatic.
6. Possessing an average amount of intelligence, we protest against legal classification with the idiot.
7. We taxpayers claim the right to representation.
8. We married women want to own our clothes.
9. We married breadwinners want to own our earnings.
10. We mothers want an equal partnership with our children.
11. We educated women want the power to offset the illiterate vote of our State."
The petitions were returned with 535 women's signatures. Several temperance union presidents wrote they could have doubled their number with two more weeks' time to circulate. These helped Mrs. Henry write her article, which became the classic "The New Woman of the New South," published along with Watson's article in Arena in February 1895.
That April in 1895, Lide, sent by NAWSA, in two weeks visited eight towns in Arkansas and gave 11 talks in all for suffrage. She helped local women start three suffrage clubs, laid the foundation for two others, and added 47 members to NAWSA.
Then from June 20 to July 4 she was sent by NAWSA to organize across Tennessee. In those two weeks she gave 13 talks, organized two suffrage clubs, laid the foundation for a third, and added 10 new members to a fourth, altogether 101 new members for NAWSA. By the end of 1895 through her efforts there were five Tennessee suffrage clubs with 128 members and other towns ready to organize. In Memphis in 1886 Lide gathered 300 signatures for woman suffrage to be added to the state constitution, most of them from men, but it was at that time a futile effort.
By 1897 there were 10 suffrage clubs in Tennessee. That year they held a state convention at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville for three days in May. Lide presided and by the last day the first state suffrage organization had come into existence, the Tennessee Equal Rights Association (TERA), with Lide as the first president. Unfortunately, around 1900, possibly with Niles Meriwether's death, Lide resigned from the TERA presidency. This was a low point for suffrage nationally as well as in the South. That same year the state WCTU let the Franchise Department lapse. Work for woman suffrage suffered from lack of strong leadership from 1900 to 1906, when Mississippi suffragist Belle Kearney issued a call for a Conference of Southern Women Suffragists to be held in Memphis. At this time of growing racism and segregation, Kearney advocated the vote for educated European-American women to counteract the votes of African-American men. About 12 delegates attended the meeting and Lide was one of the speakers and attendees. The conference statement at the end called for limited voting based on education, not sex, and called for the vote for all women who could read and write. The participants called for adding woman suffrage to state constitutions rather than a federal amendment, or working for partial suffrage through state legislatures, such as the vote for presidential electors that could lead to full suffrage. The Southern Woman Suffrage Conference was organized out of the meeting. But a more important result for the history of suffrage in Tennessee was the revival of suffrage organization through the establishment of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association (TESA), consisting of six members, with Lide Meriwether as honorary president. At seventy-six years old, she declined to take up the new organization's actual leadership. Her daughter, Mattie Betts, was elected recording secretary. For the next four years Memphis remained the only area of suffrage activity in the state. Then in 1910 the first 20th century Tennessee suffrage association outside of Memphis was organized by Lizzie Crozier French in Knoxville, and other organizations began to form.
TESA in Memphis, after growing from six to 50 members, split in 1909, and again in 1911, then forming two groups, the Political Equality League, with Lide's daughter, Mattie Betts, as president, and the revived Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, which in 1912 "became a state group in reality rather than in name."
Lide Meriwether died the next year, on September 28, 1913, at the age of 84, while visiting her daughter Lucy in Rockland County, New York and was buried in Memphis with her husband, Niles. Although she did not live to see women get the vote as a result of the role Tennessee played, after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, the first of two chapters on the Tennessee campaigns, in History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. Six, was dedicated "reverently and gratefully" to "that dauntless pioneer, Mrs. Lide A. Meriwether of Memphis.
Meriwether herself spelled her first name Lide, and her sister in poems rhymed it with "pride," and "azure-eyed," but I have seen her called Lida in print. I use her first name throughout the article, to avoid confusion with her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, also a noted suffrage activist in Memphis and nationally.
The story about Rose Cleveland, President Grover Cleveland's sister and hostess in his first term, comes from Mattie Duncan Beard, The W.T.C.U. in the Volunteer State (Kingsport, TN: Kingsport Press, 1962), 119.
The quote about Lide's wit convulsing a tombstone comes from Carrie Chapman Catt, in Mary Gray Peck, Carrie Chapman Catt: A Biography (New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1944), 67.
The story of the Arena article and Lide's petition in Tennessee appears in Susan B. Anthony and Ida Husted Harper, eds., History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 4, 927-928.
The information about the Southern Woman Suffrage Conference and the founding of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association in Memphis comes from Laura Clay, quoted in Mrs. John M. Kenny, "Tennessee. Part I," in Ida Husted Harper, ed., History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6 (1900-1920) (New York: Arno and the New York Times, 1969; orig. 1922), 596-597 and A. Elizabeth Taylor, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee (New York: Bookman Associates, 1957), 25, 26
The quote about TESA becoming a state organization in reality, rather than just in name comes from Grace Elizabeth Prescott, "The Woman Suffrage Movement in Memphis: Its Place in the State, Sectional, and National Movements," M.A. Thesis, Memphis State University, 1963, 84.
The last quote in the article comes from Catherine Talty [Mrs. John M.] Kenny, of Nashville, TN, in "Tennessee. Part I," in History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6 (1900-1920), edited by Ida Husted Harper (New York: Arno Press, 1969; orig. 1922), 596.
Other information in the article can be found in various sources outside those noted above. See my article, "'A Life of Larger Thought and Activity': Lide Meriwether from Local to Statewide to National Reformer," in Tennessee Women: Their Lives and Times, Vol. 2, edited by Beverly Greene Bond and Sarah Wilkerson Freeman (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015), for a more detailed account of Lide Meriwether's life and activities.
For a photo of Lide Meriwether [LINK]
For another biographical sketch, see "Lide Meriwether," in American Women - Fifteen Hundred Biographies with over 1,400 Portraits: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of the Lives and Achievements of American Women During the Nineteenth Century, Vol. I, ed. by Frances E. Willard and Mary A. Livermore. (New York, NY: Mast, Crowell & Kirkpatrick, 1897), pp. 498-99. [LINK]
Her most famous speech was probably "Organized Motherhood." Originally given at the Chicago World's Fair, and published in Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. (Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894), pp. 747-751