On April 5, 1972, the same day that the state Senate ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, the Tennessee General Assembly created the Tennessee Commission on the Status of Women (TCSW). It was to study and highlight women’s issues and to make recommendations that would ensure women’s participation as “equal partners” within the state. The official commission was the successor to a series of earlier “governor’s commissions” that had existed since 1963, when Governor Frank G. Clement established the first Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women in Tennessee. The governor’s commission did not endorse an equal rights amendment, but it did call for a series of legislative reforms including an end to wage discrimination and inequitable property distribution laws. From 1965 to 1972 the state’s governors formed several Continuing Commissions on the Status of Women. As second-wave feminism swept the nation, however, the continuing commission received some criticism from Tennessee women for its failure to recognize women’s new status. In response, the legislature created the TCSW, and Governor Winfield Dunn appointed its first eleven members in January 1974. Although the caption of the 1972 law proclaimed the establishment of a “permanent commission,” support for the TCSW rose and fell with the state’s support of the ERA, and in 1981 it failed to obtain renewal under the state’s sunset review.
From 1974 until 1981 the TCSW worked primarily as a clearinghouse for dissemination of information of interest to and about the state’s women. The commission issued a number of brochures and pamphlets–the 1978 pamphlet, “Marriage, Divorce, and Property Rights in Tennessee,” for instance–designed to inform women of their rights and responsibilities under the law. It also participated in or sponsored workshops across the state on issues such as job opportunities for women and family violence. In addition, commissioners and staff accepted inquiries from the public and answered women’s individual complaints and questions. Another commission function was that of advocate. It lobbied for the repeal of gender-biased statutes such as the spousal exemption for rape and women’s special exemption from jury service. The TCSW also supported the ERA, and commissioners issued a protest in March 1974 when the Tennessee legislature rescinded its earlier ERA ratification. This later action placed the commission under the scrutiny of the state’s anti-ERA forces, who argued that state taxpayer funds should not be used to support an agency promoting the amendment. These groups stated that TCSW did not represent the interests of homemakers and other nonprofessional women. Although TCSW commissioners insisted that they supported the concerns of all the state’s women, it could not rally enough votes in the state legislature to win legislative reenactment and the agency officially ended on June 30, 1981.
Governors Commission on the Status of Women in Tennessee, Women in Tennessee (1965); Rina Rosenberg, “Representing Women at the State and Local Levels: Commissions on the Status of Women,” in Women, Power, and Policy, ed. Ellen Boneparth (1982)