Martha Ragsdale Ragland, reformer in political, health, and women’s issues, was born near Russellville, Kentucky. She wanted to attend law school and later run for Congress, but the Great Depression put law school beyond her reach. She graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1927 and 1928, respectively, with undergraduate and master’s degrees in economics. Her thesis on immigration restrictions attracted the attention of Yale University professor Elseworth Huntington, who hired her to research his book on immigration. In 1932 she married Thomas Ragland but refused to wear a wedding ring. “It seemed to me a symbol of bondage, or slavery,” she explained. (1) The marriage lasted until her death and produced two children, Tommy and Sandra.
When her husband’s family business took the new couple to Knoxville, Ragland became active in Planned Parenthood and the Birth Control League. At that time, contraceptives were illegal in Tennessee. In 1938 Ragland persuaded the famous birth control advocate Margaret Sanger to accompany her on a speaking tour of Tennessee to generate support for adding birth control education to the state’s public health clinics.
Ragland joined Dorothy Stafford in revitalizing Tennessee’s League of Women Voters. An early league project stemmed from the discovery that milk was not properly and uniformly tested in Chattanooga dairies. Motivated by concern for children like their own toddlers, the two women pooled their money to purchase an ad in the Chattanooga Times to draw attention to the issue. As a result of the ensuing public pressure, Chattanooga officials corrected the milk testing process. Another league project in the health field focused on a drive for detection and prevention of tuberculosis.
In 1945, while president of the league, Ragland wrote the booklet “Tennessee Needs a New Constitution” and led a drive to update the state constitution. The two goals, reform of the merit system and abolition of the poll tax, were not realized until a constitutional convention convened in 1953.
In 1948, at Estes Kefauver’s request, Ragland organized women supporters for his first campaign for the U.S. Senate. In 1952 she worked in Albert Gore Sr.’s U.S. Senate campaign. These two elections demonstrated the rising political clout of women voters in post-World War II Tennessee.
In 1952 Ragland served as a Tennessee delegate to the Democratic National Convention. At that time, delegations were predominantly male, though women made up roughly half the voters. In 1968, for example, more than 50 percent of Tennessee’s voters were female, but only six of the state’s sixty-six delegates to the national convention were women. In 1970 Ragland and Carlene Waller set up the Volunteer Women’s Roundtable, from which stemmed the independent National Democratic Women’s Caucus. The Women’s Caucus focused first on changes to the convention rules regarding delegates to reflect the male and female voting ratios. Ragland and Waller helped organize the National Women’s Caucus to monitor the convention and take legal action against disproportionate delegations.
In 1971 Ragland fanned the coals for political reform at home. In a speech before the Volunteer Women’s Roundtable, she criticized Tennessee Democratic Party officials. She charged party officials with ignoring members who attempted to make motions and accused officials of preparing resolutions in back room sessions and then hammering them through legislative meetings with no discussion. She chastised the party for its disorganized and outmoded structure and called for public disclosure of party financial records. She complained that women did much of the fundraising but had no voice in how the money would be spent.
Ragland’s career included service as a member of the White House Commission on Women and Children, a founder of the Council on Aging, chairperson of the Tennessee Advisory Commission to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and a member of the Federal Advisory Council on Employment Security.
Ragland died on January 18, 1996, in Nashville at the age of eighty-nine. She was survived by her husband and daughter; her son had died earlier. Ragland’s papers are in Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College in Massachusetts.