Featured image: Tennessee state Rep. Harry T. Burn (center, second row from front, smiling) poses with suffrage activist Harriet Taylor Upton and all of Tennessee’s Republican state legislators who voted for the amendment.
The long sought 19th Amendment to the Constitution passed on August 18, 1920. For a brief but exhilarating read, see Heather Cox Richardson’s account of that historic development. But first, know who actually made it all possible: a woman in my home state of Tennessee. Wouldn’t you know it? A woman. Here is her story.
Long after suffragists had marched, picketed the White House, staged hunger strikes and endured force-feeding in prison for over 70 years, Congress finally passed the amendment in 1919 after rejecting it for decades. And 35 states then ratified it. Suffragists needed just one more state for the 19th Amendment to be enshrined in the Constitution.
It all came down to Tennessee.
Suffragists knew that other states simply weren’t going to budge on ratification. Their leaders also knew that opposition in the South was fierce, where opponents were using racism and the fear of Black women’s empowerment to stoke resistance. So that hot summer, political operatives and lobbyists descended in droves on the state’s capital, Nashville. It was a summer of twisting arms, buying votes and carrying out dirty tricks. One Tennessee suffragist later recalled, “The bribery that went on in that legislature is beyond belief!”
The fateful day arrived when the 19th Amendment would either go down to defeat or finally give American women the vote, and the national press was there to witness and report the results. First the Tennessee senate ratified it. But the vote in the state house of representatives resulted in a tie. Stalemate! Drama!
So a roll call vote was announced, with each representative now forced to tell the world how he had voted. That’s when 24 year old Harry Burn – nicknamed “Baby” Burn because he was the youngest member of the house – voted “aye” and changed the lives of American women forever.
All hell broke loose. Suffragists were screaming and crying, while anti-amendment lobbyists were stunned and horrified, hissing and yelling at young Harry Burn. But Harry had a letter in his pocket from his mom. It was full of news of the family and the farm back in Niota, and it included one last sentence: “Hurrah and vote for suffrage, and don’t keep them in doubt.”
The day after the vote, Burn told his fellow delegates, “I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”
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