Suffragist, attorney, writer and politician, Sue Shelton White rose from being the orphaned daughter of Chester County teachers to become one of the state’s and nation’s leaders in the fight for women’s rights, particularly the right to vote. Generally referred to as “Miss Sue,” her petite size belied her considerable abilities and will. James Tate, general counsel for the federal Social Security Board, called her “a lady warrior” – both a Southern gentlewoman and a fighter.
Unlike many suffragists who came from affluent backgrounds, White was born May 25, 1887, in Henderson, Tennessee, to James Shelton White and Mary Calista Swain. Her parents were schoolteachers of modest means and were considered by some to be liberal thinkers.
The death of James White in 1893 left Mary White responsible for the support of her seven children. She sold books and pianos, gave music lessons and wrote for the local newspaper. She also tutored her own children. The family lived in what Sue White described as a “twilight zone” between white Henderson and the Black community of Jaybird. Mary White died in 1901, leaving her daughter an orphan at age 14.
White graduated from Georgie Robertson Christian College in 1904 and West Tennessee Business College in Dyer, Tennessee, in 1905. At age 18, she began working as a stenographer in Jackson; a few years later she became one of the state’s first female court reporters.
From that beginning, she forged her way to the forefront of the women’s suffrage fight. Joining the movement in 1912, she became the recording secretary of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association in 1913, but switched her allegiance to the National Woman’s Party in 1918. She moved to Washington, D.C., and became Tennessee chair of the NWP and edited The Suffragist, the organization’s newspaper.
In Washington, White participated in a demonstration on the White House lawn and burned a paper effigy of President Woodrow Wilson. She was arrested and served five days in jail. Following her release, she joined the “Prison Special,” a train that traveled the country calling attention to the cause of women’s suffrage. Twenty-six members of the National Women’s Party traveled around the country. When they arrived at their destination, they put on uniforms like the ones they had worn in the workhouse for their public appearances. Speaking to large crowds, they described their treatment and the conditions in the prison.
After the U.S. Senate passed the 19th Amendment in June 1919, it was sent to the states for ratification. A little over a year later, 35 states had ratified it. Only one more state was needed to make it law. Eight southern states had already defeated ratification; Tennessee’s General Assembly would decide the Amendment’s fate. White returned to her home state to lead the fight. Tennessee, by a single vote, ratified the Amendment Aug. 18, 1920.
As clerk and later secretary to Tennessee Senator Kenneth C. McKellar, White continued her fight for women’s rights. Having earned a law degree in 1923 from Washington College of Law, she returned to Tennessee in 1926 and practiced law in Jackson until 1930. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, White was appointed executive assistant to Mary Harrison Rumsey in the Consumers Division of the National Recovery Administration. During the Roosevelt years, she expanded political patronage for Southern women. White also helped create a women’s faction within the Democratic Party, contributing to Roosevelt’s winning coalition in 1932. She moved to the Social Security Administration in 1935 where she helped implement the Social Security Act.
White succumbed to cancer May 6, 1943, in Alexandria, Virginia. She is one of five suffragists depicted in a sculpture located in Nashville’s Centennial Park. The work of Alan LeGuire, it commemorates Tennessee’s role in ratification of the 19th Amendment. The City of Henderson has not only named the downtown park in White’s honor, but also has wrapped a utility box with highlights of her legacy.