The Letter from Mom that Won Women the Vote.
We Americans too often take the right to vote for granted. Every election we hear people say their lone vote doesn’t matter. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Even something as large as the campaign for women’s suffrage, which lasted decades and required the combined efforts of thousands, in the end was decided by the vote of just one person.1
The Long Struggle. The American fight for women’s equality typically is dated from the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Many issues needed to be addressed and suffrage didn’t really come to the fore until 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment outlawed race, but not sex as a qualification for voting. A female voting rights amendment was introduced in 1878 and sat in committee for nine years before being resoundingly defeated. It wasn’t considered again until 1914, when again it went down to defeat.
Beginning in the 1900s, women achieved limited success at the state level, primarily in the west. Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party supported women’s suffrage in the 1912 national election. World War I put many suffrage efforts on hold, but the campaign was revived and reinvigorated after the armistice.
In 1918 Congress again took up the women’s voting rights amendment first proposed in 1878. It quickly passed in the House, but required several efforts in the Senate. After 41 years it finally was sent to the states for ratification in June 19194 with the hope that it would become law in time for women to vote nationally in the 1920 presidential election.
A number of states ratified immediately, several voted no — a total of 36 was needed. On March 22, 1920 Washington became the 35th state to ratify. Several states then voted no in quick succession and others decided to take no action. By summer Tennessee was the only state remaining that could ratify in time for the 1920 election. The eyes and lobbying efforts of the nation turned their attention to Nashville.
The Deciding Vote. The ensuing campaign came to be known as the war of the roses since ratification supporters showed their sympathy by wearing yellow roses while opponents wore red. Both sides had strong support. Tennessee had just enacted limited state suffrage, but the governor opposed the amendment in part because he feared women would vote against him in 1920. Bowing to intense national pressure, the governor called a special session of the legislature to consider the amendment.
Ratification easily passed in the state Senate, but the vote in the House was too close to call. The House debated ratification on August 17 and scheduled a vote for the next day. As legislators entered the house chamber on August 18, each wore a red or yellow rose. Suffrage opponents must have felt smug since it looked like there were enough red roses to block ratification. Little did they know that one man who wore a red rose on his lapel carried something much more powerful in his pocket — a letter from his mother urging him to vote for women’s suffrage.
The first order of business was a motion to table. Had it passed the amendment would have died right there, but the vote was tied so the vote on ratification proceeded. When the role call got to the youngest member, Harry Burn, his red rose and vote with the “antis” on the motion to table marked him as a safe “Nay.” But he was the man with the letter from Mom and he voted “Aye,” thereby securing Tennessee’s ratification and enshrining women’s suffrage in the U.S. Constitution.
* * * * *
Burn’s apparent change of mind enraged suffrage opponents. He explained that he had voted with the “antis” on the motion to table so that ratification could be taken up in a later session rather than going down to defeat. When he saw that his vote could decide the outcome on the spot, he voted his belief that full suffrage is a right. After all, he said:
“I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”
So mothers, please don’t give up. Your children may not always heed your advice, they might even resent it at times. But someday your word in the right ear may help to change the course of history.
- Information for this article comes from the following sources: Anastasia Sims, Woman Suffrage Movement, Tennessee Historical Society (1998); Scott Bomboy, The vote that led to the 19th amendment, Constitution Daily (August 18, 2016); Showdown in Nashville on the web site of The Tennessee State Museum; Wikipedia article on the Nineteenth Amendment; Ida Husted Harper (ed.), The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. VI (1900–1920), Chapter on Tennessee, pp. 616–25, National American Woman Suffrage Association (1922).
- Febb Burn in her garden. Image from the C.M. McClung Historical Collection at the Knox County Public Library.
- States in white provided full voting rights, black states none and shaded states limited rights. Map published in 1919 by the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co. Image from Norman B. Leventhal Map Center web site.
- Amendments to the Constitution require approval of two-thirds of the House and Senate and three-quarters of the states. U.S. Const. art. V.
- Photo of Harry T. Burn in 1919. Image from Harry T. Burn Papers, C.M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Public Library.
This article originally appeared in our free semi-monthly newsletter. To receive future issues, please add your name to the subscription list.