How women got the vote (with my uncle’s help)

By Jacqueline White Kochak

I like to say my grandmother’s uncle won women the right to vote.

The state of American politics these days has got me ruminating about the uncle who died six years before I was born—a minor character in the drama of history, a forgotten footnote to a very important chapter.

He’s also my hero, a testament to the consequences of personal and political courage.


I pray that today’s legislators will learn to be true leaders—and be willing to pay the price.


Albert Houston Roberts was first a schoolteacher, then an attorney, then governor of Tennessee. He took office in 1919—just in time to help change history.

That year, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, 39 straightforward words that inflamed passions nationwide. If ratified by 36 states, the amendment would enfranchise women.

One by one, 35 states signed. One more was needed to complete the “Perfect 36,” but none of the recalcitrant Southern or Western states looked ready to budge.

August 1920 was muggy in Nashville. If Tennessee failed to pass the amendment in special session, it likely would die. Family lore says Roberts passionately believed women should vote. Opposition in Tennessee ran high, so Roberts called in every favor and used every ounce of influence to force the issue. In a close vote, the measure passed.

As a child, I discounted the story. My children still do. But journalist that I am I sensed a story. I wrote to American Heritage magazine, suggesting I research the story and record the process.

If the editor deigned to answer, I expected a thin letter. Instead, I got a thick packet. The story—far more dramatic than I imagined—already had been written.

That oppressive summer, the nation focused attention on Nashville, which teemed with reporters from New York, Chicago, Washington and Boston. Suffragists wrote letters, staged rallies and canvassed legislators. Telegrams shot back and forth between the White House and the State House in Nashville. Tempers flared.

Supporters wore yellow roses. Those opposed wore red. Legislators showed their sentiments by pinning roses to their lapels—and the roses showed the amendment would be defeated, 49-47.

A motion to table was defeated when one legislator switched sides. A vote on the amendment was called, and again legislators split, 48-48. A second vote was called, and young Harry Burn—red rose pinned brazenly to his collar—broke the deadlock and voted to enfranchise women. Pandemonium erupted, and Burn climbed out a a third-floor window to escape the mob. He hid in the Capitol attic.

Later, Burn explained that he wore a red rose, but in his pocket he carried his mother’s telegram. His mother’s wishes won out over political expediency and superficial coalitions. He voted for the controversial amendment.

The battle wasn’t over, however. Opponents managed to delay official ratification. Anti-suffrage legislators fled the state to avoid a quorum, and their associates held massive rallies. The coalition held, however, and Tennessee reaffirmed the vote.

On Aug. 28, my uncle signed the bill. Two days later, women earned the constitutional right that white men had possessed since the nation was born, and that black men had possessed since the 1860s.

What did Roberts’ courage win him? Absolutely nothing, in the pragmatists’s view. He’s not mentioned in the history books. Family legend says he was considered for inclusion in Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage but missed the cut. He failed in his bid for re-election and took up the practice of law with his son in Nashville.

He left a legacy, however, a legacy of which his family, his state and his country can be proud. Now, as a government shutdown threatens and rumors of corruption are rampant, I pray that our legislators will become true leaders—and be willing to pay the price.

Photo: Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts (1868–1946) certifying the state’s ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920. Memphis suffragist Charl Williams stands watching. Photo credit: Nashville Tennessean (in the Tennessee State Library and Archives).

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My cousin Paula

On Sunday mornings, strange thoughts waft through my cluttered mind. Oh, the blood (and DNA) will tell!


Jacqueline White Kochak

I do my best thinking about people when I’m sitting in a choir stall at St. Michael’s Catholic Church on a Sunday morning, gazing out at hundreds of mostly white faces. I’m euphoric as my choir mates and I sing, but then my mind wanders. I know I should be minding Father Bill’s pithy homily, but the temptation to ruminate about people and their foibles, with such a wealth of examples laid out before me, is irresistible.

I watch a trim, handsome widower as he links arms with a young woman who once attended Mass with her former husband and their young son, and I wonder how the transition came about. I look for my friends. I wonder why that skinny teenager is dressed as though she is going to the beach. And often, the thought that wafts through my cluttered mind is that I’m more closely related to Paula Whatley Matabane, a “black” woman, than I am to any of these parishioners.

Most of the people in my church are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Polish and Italian and Irish and German immigrants from Europe, the Catholic refuse that washed up on America’s shores. I am separated from these people by many, many generations, and we share little but pale skin. My family, on the other hand, has been here since the 1600s and early 1700s, fanning out from Virginia and moving west.

I am separated from Paula by a mere five generations, and my mother is even closer to her—and my grandmother closer still. We both know the sad history that made us distant cousins, and that is another thing I ruminate upon. How could I, in my amnesiac present, not know that my family owned slaves? Many slaves, apparently.

I’ve seen their names in my forebears’ wills, parceling out Sally to a daughter, Tom to a son, sometimes with specific instructions that one not be sold, but that her “increase” be divided among the heirs. The passage of many years and many miles is part of the reason my family has been blessed with amnesia. Otherwise, the understanding might be unbearable.

Editor’s note: The artwork is from my daughter’s current show in Miami. Paula and I are writing down our thoughts about our new relationship, so I might share a few of them here. You can learn more about Natalya Kochak’s project here. And here is an interesting article on the subject of skin color. 

A hacker stole my money

A 73-year-old widow by the name of Margaret thought she met a nice man on match.com. In fact her suitor was a hacker who stole $20,000 from us, and she laundered his money. You could be a victim, too.


Last April, I took a guided tour through the world of cyber-crime. I learned brand-new (to me) words like “phishing” and took a peek into the dark world of catfishing and romance scams. I was lucky—my education cost only $20,000. Others have gotten the same education but it cost them 10 times as much.

The cast of characters includes my husband, my adult daughter, a lovesick lady I don’t know who lives in the Chicago suburbs, and a South African scammer. And the cast includes me, of course, as well as a hapless realtor and the executives of a prominent Chicago realty firm.


She wasn’t talking with the real estate agent. She was chatting with a hacker who may have been in South Africa.


The story starts in midtown Chicago, where my daughter Emma lived in a tiny, crowded basement apartment with her significant other and young son, Damien. The little family needed a bigger place. When my husband’s father left us a substantial inheritance several years earlier, he stipulated that part was to help our children buy homes.

My excited daughter, Emma, started condo shopping. Working with a well-known Chicago realty firm, she found a nice, updated condominium with wood floors and a new kitchen, located on a tree-lined street near busy Lincoln Square on the city’s north side. Once she found the property, she communicated via email with the realtor, who I’ll call Sheila Kennedy.

The realty company, @properties, is the largest real estate brokerage firm in the state of Illinois and one of the top 12 residential brokers in the U.S. With more than 20 offices around the city, the company is respected and successful. We certainly didn’t expect any problems.

CHATTING WITH A HACKER: Emma frequently exchanged pleasantries with Sheila. We later learned, however, that she wasn’t talking with Sheila much of the time. She was chatting innocently with a hacker who may have been in South Africa, someone who had commandeered Sheila’s account against her will and without her knowledge. Maybe it was that 400-pound hacker working from his bedroom that then-presidential-candidate Donald Trump mentioned during the first presidential debate?

One imagines hackers as brilliant guys who know all about various programming languages and how to write code to exploit weaknesses in a network. They seek out open ports in a system, figure out a way to crack passwords (that’s why strong passwords are so important), give themselves administrative privileges, and create backdoors so they can get back into systems. Then they take over, wreaking havoc if they wish but usually just sneaking around gathering information and hiding their “footprints” as they go.

If that sounds complicated, it is. And that’s probably not how the hackers got access to Sheila’s email. They probably used a simple “phishing” scheme, meaning they sent her an innocent-looking email from someone she thought was a friend, asking her to click on a link or download a PDF. Somehow—I’m not knowledgeable enough to know how—communications from my daughter to Sheila were then diverted.

“The scheme was very sophisticated,” I heard over and over again from bank and police officers both at home in Alabama and in Chicago.

Sheila’s last real email was dated April 8. She asked that a check for $2,000 earnest money be mailed to Dream Town Realty. Her following e-mails—from the same gmail account, with all the same addresses and slogans at the bottom—came from the imposter. The new emails even boasted, “Top Agent Magazine, 2014 & 2015,” and “Chicago Top Producer 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013 & 2014.”

“I have a busy schedule today with closings and meeting, I will wait on your email,” says one. “I hope you are keeping safe from all the storms and tornadoes,” reads another, and “I hope you had a nice Easter,” says yet another.

The one thing all the emails had in common was continual reminders about the necessity of wiring the $20,000 down payment to the title company. The emails continued to be friendly, their tone casual.

“Sorry I was in a showing since 8am, just got your email, I am walking into another meeting till 4pm, Let me know once the wire has been done,” the hacker wrote, for example.

AN ARDENT SUITOR: In the meantime, a 73-year-old widow by the name of Margaret thought she had met a very nice man on match.com. A devout Catholic, she lived in the northwest Chicago suburb of Algonquin and had built a reputation as a talented artisan, arranging beautiful floral arrangements in collectibles such as vintage china or a tiny child’s wooden sled. Margaret’s Swiss-born husband, Walter, had died recently, so she was testing the waters after many years of marriage. She was the perfect prey for a romance scam—catfishing, it’s called.


Her suitor was a businessman building a hospital in China, and he needed emergency funds.   


Romance scammers prey on nice people. They look for kind people, people with empathy. They build trust, setting their snares. When they need help, the nice lady or the nice man responds. Margaret is lucky she didn’t lose a lot of money; the criminal behind this particular elaborate scheme only wanted a legitimate bank account in the Chicago area where the marks—my husband and me—could wire money without our suspicions being aroused.

Margaret wasn’t suspicious, either. Her suitor was a businessman building a hospital in China. He had a need for emergency funds. When the money was wired into her account, she immediately sent it on to China. At least that’s where she thought the money went. Police later told me they traced our $20,000 to South Africa. Technically, Margaret was a money-launderer. Nobody thought of pressing charges, however.

We would have been on guard immediately if we had been instructed to wire money to a foreign account. In fact, we were on guard soon after, when “Sheila” asked us to wire another $60,000 as part of the purchase price. We knew that didn’t sound right because that money should have come from mortgage proceeds, and we hadn’t completed the process. We immediately started asking questions.

As soon as we confirmed that Sheila knew nothing about the $20,000, we contacted an @properties vice president I’ll call Wayne Kelly. He let slip that another couple turned up for a closing that same afternoon, thinking they wired $60,000 to a title company. As I researched the subject, I found this type of wire fraud is common in real-estate transactions. People have wired hundreds of thousands of dollars into bank accounts controlled by criminals.

AVOID BEING A VICTIM: What would I tell someone to do to avoid being a victim? Some states actually require that funds be transferred before closing via wire transfer—ironically, to avoid scams using fake cashier’s checks. When you get wire instructions for your closing, call your closing agent or your real estate attorney to verify those instructions. And use the phone number you’ve been using with them, not a new phone number emailed to you.

Also, absolutely refuse to communicate with your realtor or any other party to the transaction if he or she is using a free email server like gmail. Free email accounts are more vulnerable because they don’t have the firewalls, virus protection and other security of company-issued e-mail accounts. Any real estate company that hasn’t warned its agents is negligent—but the law is sketchy, so that can be hard to prove in court.

If you don’t want to be an inadvertent money launderer (or worse, get scammed yourself), be cautious on dating sites. Anyone can put up a fake photo of a debonair gent or beautiful young woman, and these scammers will spend hours drawing you out and listening to your dreams and schemes. If they profess their love too soon, be suspicious—especially if they’re in a foreign country and claim to have no family.

Some are more patient, though, and will spend months wooing you with intimate conversation. As soon as they ask for money, though, run the other direction.

I’ve tried to find Margaret to learn more about her experience. She’s no longer at her home in Algonquin, and her phone is disconnected. I tracked her down on Facebook and learned she’s moved into a retirement community. I tried sending her a message but got no reply. I’m sure she’s embarrassed, but I bear her no ill will. I just want to share the story so others will be careful.

I’ve had to tell the story to bank officials, our investment adviser (who took care of wiring the funds), and police officers in two states, as well as filing a report with the FBI and Equifax. The worst thing was enduring an interview with an embarrassed representative from a local senior services agency, who was tasked with determining whether I was in full possession of all my faculties.

As I talked to all these people, I learned that variations on wire fraud scams are shockingly common. One wealthy man in the small town where I live lost over $250,000. Fortunately he could afford to lose it, a police officer told me.

Most of us can’t, so be careful.