Story Stream
recent articles

Last night's prime-time lineup for opening night in the Democrats' 2020 virtual convention began with a female senator from Minnesota and ended with a former first lady who, had she run for president this year, would have handled the field as easily as Secretariat in a cheap claiming race.

That's just my opinion, of course, but it has the advantage of being impossible to disprove. Anyway, one day before Kamala Harris addresses this convention, it's fitting to remember that 100 years ago today, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the constitutional amendment granting women the vote. The fight in the state legislature there was close. Impassioned Tennesseans on both sides of the issue gathered in the state capital for the dramatic denouement.

As I've written in this space previously, all the legislators assembled in Nashville knew, as did almost every politically aware citizen in this country, that if Tennessee approved the 19th Amendment the long fight for women' suffrage would have succeeded. But a roll call vote on a motion to table the measure was deadlocked at 48-48. A final vote on passage was scheduled for the following day.

* * *

Suffrage was roiling the politics of Tennessee as the 1920 gubernatorial election pitted a pro-suffrage candidate against a traditionalist. Hedging his bets, the governor called for a special session of the legislature to tackle the issue, hoping that it would be resolved one way or the other.

Arriving at the Nashville train station, members of the Tennessee General Assembly were met by supporters and opponents of the 19th Amendment, who gave them flowers to wear on their lapels. A yellow rose signified a pro-suffrage lawmaker; red roses were given to the opponents.

Harry T. Burn of McMinn County took a red rose. At 24, he was the youngest member of the legislature. But young men are known to change their minds, especially when a woman is involved.

By this time in the suffrage quest, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had died, leaving Carrie Chapman Catt as the most prominent leader on the issue in the country. Arriving in Nashville, she took up residence (as did anti-suffragist Josephine Pearson) in the Hermitage Hotel, across the street from the capitol. As crowds grew on both sides in anticipation of the vote, parades were held, along with garden parties, designed to sway wavering lawmakers. The fair city was a veritable festival of arm-twisting, lobbying, and florid oratory.

The state Senate had already passed the amendment, leaving its fate in the hands of the lower chamber. Vote counters on both sides considered it too close to call. After the motion to table the measure ended up in a tie, Speaker Seth Walker, a suffrage opponent, called for a second vote the next day. Another tie would mean failure of the amendment. But what if someone changed their mind? Ms. Catt and her supporters were nervous. They had done all they could think of. Asked by her lieutenants what else they could do, she replied, "We can pray."

On Aug. 18, 1920, those prayers were answered.

Harry Burn, it seems, had been petitioned by a pro-suffrage constituent from his district -- a farm wife he knew well. Her plea came in the form of a brief letter.

"Dear Son," it began. "Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! 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. … Don't forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat' in ratification."

This letter did the trick. Its author, Phoebe Ensminger Burn, was indeed Harry's mother. Although he'd briefly worn a red rose in opposition, forever after this vote he would wear the mantle of history.

"I believe in full suffrage as a right," he explained. "I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify. I know a mother's advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification."

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Show comments Hide Comments