Some protestors tried to drown out Rep. Robin Smith at the Women's Rally at Miller Park on a wet Saturday.
The Hixson Republican mainly spoke about a Chattanoogan named Abby Crawford Milton, who in 1920 played a pivotal role in securing women the right to vote. Through protest and lobbying, Ms. Milton convinced enough Tennesseans to support women’s suffrage, thus making the Volunteer State the essential 36th state needed to ratify the 19th amendment. And on the Centennial celebration of this momentous occasion, a new generation of protesters voiced their belief that there was still progress that needed to be made.
“She’s anti-woman, and she just recently voted for the bill that would keep LGBT parents from adopting,” said a protester holding a sign that read ‘Shame on Robin Smith.’ “She’s been a constant racist, homophobe, and xenophobe. She’s very anti-choice and sponsored two anti-choice bills, and she does not belong at a women’s march event.”
The 2020’s women’s march was the subject of controversy in the weeks leading up to it. Originally conceived as a way to shed light on the need to fight for women’s rights, this year’s edition became a celebration of the past. This change was not well-received from some quarters, as many of the featured speakers possessed views and voting records that many believed went against the original spirit of the march.
Rep. Smith, a conservative representative in the Tennessee legislature, was announced earlier as one of the featured speakers at the event. When she came up to speak, a group of protesters shouted vociferously, drowning out whatever she had to say. After a few moments, the shouting became more intermittent, allowing her to talk about Abby Crawford Milton’s role in the women’s suffrage movement.
“This is a wonderful event organized by ladies who are committed to celebrating our state’s history, as we are in the centennial of the woman’s suffrage events,” said Rep. Smith, who seemed to ignore the shouting from the protesters.
“They have a message and they have a voice,” said Rep. Smith about the protesters at the park. “Just like in 1920, there were women for suffrage and women against suffrage, and today it’s no different. But today we’re all standing for women’s suffrage, and it’s a great day.”
Throughout the cold and rainy afternoon, different speakers took the stage to celebrate the occasion. One of these speakers represented Girls Inc. of Chattanooga, a nonprofit devoted to empowering young women.
“Our mission is to inspire girls to be strong, smart, and bold, and to teach them to be independent, educated, and healthy,” said director of program operations Toccora Johnson. “We are here because we know that one day our girls will be in those positions to be politicians, to be CEOs, to be entrepreneurs. We’re here to let them know they do have a city that supports them and the right to be themselves.
Sprinkled throughout the protesters and political activists were an assortment of neutral observers. One young woman opined, “I was surprised at how seriously people were protesting, especially after they were just listening to a poem about listening to people with diverse opinions. I just hope to see positivity and talking about things that matter.”
Another woman, holding her daughter close as she spoke, brought up her disapproval of Robin Smith’s policies, who by this point had left the soggy field in front of the looming federal courthouse. She said she was there to support women’s rights, and did not believe Rep. Smith did a good job of doing that in office.
“I don’t think the GOP is supporting women’s rights at all. I think they need to support the Violence Against Women act and the equal rights amendment act,” said the mother, “and I don’t like what is happening with women’s health. Bill Lee is about to sign a bill that will outlaw abortion in the state of Tennessee, and I don’t like that at all. If Robin Smith supports that, then she’s not supporting my rights as a woman or the rights of my daughter.”
Councilwoman Carol Berz drew a parallel to the suffragettes of 1920 to the protesters of 2020 when asked about her thoughts on the protesters, saying, “That’s what democracy is about. If you’re schooled in the suffrage movement, then you know there were women on both sides (of the political spectrum) who did the same thing. That’s what freedom of speech is about, so it’s fine to have them here.”
After getting a question about how “well-behaved” the protesters were, Councilwoman Berz had a succinct answer.
“There’s a saying that well-behaved women probably won’t succeed. So the bottom line is, they’re exercising their freedom of speech, and that’s fine.”