Sue Shelton White, suffragist, equal rights advocate, attorney, and writer, was born and reared in Henderson, the sixth of seven children born to James Shelton White and Mary Calista Swain White. As teachers and liberal thinkers, White’s parents stressed the value of education and tutored her at home. Orphaned at age fourteen, White continued her education and graduated from Henderson’s Georgie Robertson Christian College in 1904 and West Tennessee Business College in Dyer in 1905. In 1923 she earned a law degree from Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C.
White joined the woman suffrage movement in 1912. Working to increase support for suffrage in Tennessee, she served as recording secretary for the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association beginning in 1913, but came to believe that the policies and methods of the more radical National Woman’s Party (NWP) were more effective and changed her allegiance in 1918. Moving to Washington, D.C., White became Tennessee chair of the NWP and edited the organization’s newspaper, the Suffragist. White achieved additional notoriety for participating in a suffrage demonstration in which the NWP burned President Woodrow Wilson in effigy. She was arrested and served five days in the Old Work House, a condemned jail. After her release, White joined the “Prison Special,” a chartered railroad car that traveled around the country bringing the issue of woman suffrage to the people.
In June 1919 the U.S. Senate approved the Nineteenth Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. By August of 1920, the amendment had been ratified in thirty-five states and needed only one additional state to become the law of the land. Eight southern states had defeated ratification, and it fell to the Tennessee General Assembly to decide the issue. White returned to the state and lobbied for ratification, which was achieved by a single vote on August 18.
Shortly after ratification, U.S. Senator from Tennessee Kenneth D. McKellar, a Democrat, appointed White his clerk and later secretary (1920-26). Continuing her interest in women’s rights, White helped write the 1923 Equal Rights Amendment, sponsored by the NWP. White returned to Jackson, Tennessee, and practiced law from 1926 to 1930. She continued to be active in Democratic Party politics, especially through Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee. With the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency in 1932, White received an appointment as executive assistant to Mary (Molly) Harrison Rumsey in the Consumers Division of the National Recovery Administration (NRA). In 1935, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the NRA unconstitutional, White moved to the newly organized Social Security Administration, where she served as an attorney to help implement the Social Security Act.
After a long bout with cancer, White died on May 6, 1943, at the Alexandria, Virginia, home she shared with Florence Armstrong, her long-term friend.
Betty Sparks Huehls, “Sue Shelton White: The Making of a Radical,” West Tennessee Historical Society Papers 48 (1994): 24-34; James P. Louis, “Sue Shelton White and the Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee, 1913-1920,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 22 (1963): 170-90; Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States (1993)