The date was August 18, 1920 — 100 years ago. It was the day the 70-year battle for suffrage ended in Nashville, Tenn. Finally, after seven decades of fierce political lobbying, women in the United States had the right to vote. This is the story behind how a mother’s advice to her son helped make it happen.
Harry T. Burn was a youngster amongst old men when he was elected to the Tennessee State Legislature in 1918. The 22-year-old Republican from McMinn County was the youngest member of the legislature. Most of his colleagues were older than 60. Following a summer of intense lobbying in Nashville, which became the epicenter of the suffrage movement in 1920, Burn walked into the state house on August 18 wearing a red rose on his lapel. The red boutonniere signified his opposition to suffrage; supporters wore yellow roses, while opponents wore red roses. But what followed stunned the room, and changed the nation.
Suffrage became a viable political movement during World War I. The issue had been on the front burner for years, but couldn’t gain enough traction to pass Congress. Finally, in 1917, things began to come to a head when protests in front of the White House turned violent, leading to the arrests of several women. The prisoners went on a hunger strike while they were incarcerated and Wilson, appalled at learning that they were being force-fed in jail, endorsed suffrage for the first time. In doing so, he joined forces with his daughter, Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre, who was a leading proponent of suffrage.
“We have made partners of the women in this war… Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Wilson asked lawmakers in Washington during one speech, referring to the role women had played in World War I. On June 4, 1919, Congress finally passed the 19th amendment.
But as the summer of 2020 rolled around, one year later, only 35 states had voted to ratify the constitutional amendment. Thirty-six states were needed. Eight states, mostly in the South, had rejected the amendment. Among them were Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Four more states — Connecticut, Vermont, North Carolina and Florida — had declined to take up a vote to ratify the 19th amendment. That left Tennessee as the only state that could ratify the amendment and make it the law of the land in 1920.
The Tennessee State Senate voted by a wide margin to adopt the amendment and grant women the right to vote. But the issue was much more contentious in the House of Representatives, which set off the fierce debate — the War of the Roses — in the Summer of 1920.
On the morning of August 18, the vote was finally set to be taken. Young Harry Burn, by that time 24 years old and a two-year veteran of the legislature, walked into the state house with his red boutonniere pinned to his lapel. He had once been seen as a vote that could be swayed by suffrage supporters, but it appeared that he had fallen into the anti-suffrage camp.
The first vote of the day on the suffrage issue was a vote to table the amendment — meaning it wouldn’t be passed. Burn stood true to the red rose he was wearing, and voted in favor of tabling the matter. The vote was deadlocked, 48-48, meaning it would move on for an up or down vote for ratification.
Had the vote remained the same, the issue would’ve failed. The 19th amendment would be delayed for at least another year, and women still would not have the right to vote.
But then something happened: Burn changed his vote.
If his colleagues had been paying closer attention, they might have noticed that while Burn was wearing a red rose on his lapel, he was clutching something in his hand. It was a note from his mother, Phoebe King Ensminger Burn, a 46-year-old widow from Niota, Tenn. known to her friends as Miss Febb.
In the letter, Miss Febb urged her son — one of her four children — to vote in favor of ratifying the 19th amendment. “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage!” she wrote. “Don’t keep them in doubt. I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet.”
Miss Febb invoked the writing of suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt, telling her son to “be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”
When his name was called, Harry Burn heeded his mother’s advice, and voted “aye.” The motion carried, and Tennessee had become the “perfect 36” — the 36th state to ratify the 19th amendment. For the first time, and forever more, women had the right to vote alongside men in America.
A wild scene ensued. Burn escaped to the attic of the capitol building; some say he was merely trying to avoid the ruckus; others say he escaped through a third story window onto a narrow ledge because anti-suffrage lawmakers were intent on roughing him up.
Within a day’s time, efforts were underway to reopen the vote and have it nullified. Opponents of suffrage alleged bribery, saying that Burn had been offered $10,000 to change his vote. Burn and others, including an aide to the governor, denied the claims.
When asked about his vote, Burn said simply this: “I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification. I appreciated the fact that an opportunity such as seldom comes to a mortal man to free 17 million women from political slavery was mine.”
And because a 24-year-old lawmaker from tiny Niota, Tenn. decided to take his mother’s advice, women earned the right to vote, and Tennessee played a pivotal role in the suffrage movement.