On August 18, 1920 history was made by way of a telegram sent by a mother to her son.  Harry Burn, age 24 and a member of the Tennessee legislature, heeded his mother's plea and fundamentally changed America.  

Little more than a year had passed since the US Senate approved, on June 4 1919, the 19th Amendment, which would extend the right to vote to half the nation's citizens. Thirty-five of forty-eight states had already ratified the measure, and only one more state was needed to meet the constitutional requirement that amendments become law when ratified by "the Legislatures of three fourths of the several states..."

The 20th Century "War of the Roses" was raging in Nashville, and reporters from the big cities of New York, Boston, and Chicago were there to cover it.  The men in the state legislature wore either a red or yellow rose on their lapel to signify their position: red against, yellow for, giving women the right to vote. And as the red roses outnumbered the yellow 49-47 before the roll call, the outcome appeared almost certain.  Appeared certain, that is, until a mother's words were considered.

The looming battle in the long-waged war by women to participate in democracy came one hundred and forty-four years after Thomas Jefferson wrote about self-evident truths and inalienable rights.  Fifty years had passed since the passage of the 15th Amendment (enfranchising black men); and it was already forty-two years since the amendment was first proposed in the United States Senate in 1878.  

The New York Times detailed the history of the movement and the proposed federal amendment in Congress on June 5, 1919:

For five years after the civil war suffragists tried to secure interpretation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments which would permit them to vote. In 1872 Miss Anthony made a test vote at the polls, was arrested, and refused to pay her fine, but was never jailed.

In 1875 Miss Anthony drafted the proposed Federal amendment, the same one that was voted on today. In 1878 the amendment was introduced in the Senate by Senator Sargent of California. It has been voted on in the Senate five times, including today. In 1878 the vote was 16 yeas to 34 nays; in 1914 it failed by 11 votes, in 1918 it failed by two votes, and on Feb. 10, 1919, it failed by one vote. It has been voted on three times in the House. It failed there in 1915 by 78 votes. In 1918 it passed the House with one vote to spare. On May 21, 1919, it passed the House with 14 votes more than the necessary two-thirds.

Carrie Chapman Catt, protege of Susan B. Anthony, described the battle on both a federal and state level, in 1923:

To get the word male in effect out of the constitution cost the women of the country fifty-two years of pauseless campaign thereafter.  During that time they were forced to conduct fifty-six campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to urge Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to induce State constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into State constitutions; 277 campaigns to persuade State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to urge presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms, and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.  Millions of dollars were raised, mainly in small sums, and expended with economic care.  Hundreds of women gave the accumulated possibilities of an entire lifetime, thousands gave years of their lives, hundreds of thousands gave constant interest and such aid as they could.  It was a continuous, seemingly endless, chain of activity.  Young suffragists who helped forge the last links of that chain were not born when it began. Old suffragists who forged the first links were dead when it ended...

The importance of the outcome in Tennessee was obvious to both sides at the time.  While thirty-five states had approved the amendment, ten had rejected it out of hand.  That left only Connecticut and Vermont, whose governors refused to call special legislative sessions required by their state constitutions to vote on federal amendments.

Why did so many men, and women for that matter, fight tooth and nail against enfranchising women?  The reasons were many and varied.  The most common constitutional argument against a federal amendment was predicated on the familiar and oft-cited states' right to set "qualifications" for voters, as Sen. James Wadsworth of New York orated during the Senate debate:

"No vote of mine cast upon this amendment would deprive any of the electors of my State of any privilege they now enjoy," said the Senator. "I feel so strongly that the people of the several States should be permitted to decide for themselves, that am frank to say that, if this amendment, instead of being drafted to extend woman suffrage all over the country, were drafted to forbid the extension of the franchise to women in the States, I would vote against it. Even though one might be opposed on general principles to the extension of the franchise to women, one cannot logically object to the people of a State settling that question for themselves."

The anti-suffrage movement advanced a variety of other reasons as to why suffrage should be denied to women.  Most pertained to their place in society and in the family.  One argument, naturally, was that woman's place was in the home and the distraction of politics would be harmful to children and husbands:  

Another argument was that women did not need to participate in elections, since their husbands, fathers and brothers would vote in their best interest.  The "dirty business" of politics was also cited, appealing to the notion that women's pure natures would be corrupted by being involved.  Better natures aside, women's weaker intellectual and emotional strength would render them incapable of casting a wise vote.  And finally, the antis argued, a majority of women did not want the vote:

The women who demanded suffrage, they concluded, were mannish, unnatural and unsexed misfits who could hardly pretend to speak for normal women.

Several churches also entered the debate, such as the Catholic Church and the Lutherans.  Many letters to editors of newspapers were written by pastors and priests, arguing the rightful "sphere" of women.  The beer and liquor industry financed a large number of the anti-suffrage groups, given the concern that women voters would seek to prohibit the sale of alcohol.  

But by early 1919, the law in fifteen states  (including New York, by referendum in 1917) provided for full suffrage.  The growing trend of successfully changing state law between 1912 and 1918 led President Wilson to change his position on the issue of a federal amendment, given that his re-election in 1916 was owed in part to women voters.  Moreover, the suffragists were able to advance their claim due to the expanding role women were being called to fill in industry while men were fighting in the first World War. The stage was thus set for the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate to pass the 19th Amendment in the summer of 1919, and ratification or rejection by the states.

Which takes us back to Nashville Tennessee, and August 18 1920:  

By the roses, it appeared the amendment would be defeated 47 for and 49 against. In the first roll call, however, Rep. Banks Turner came over to the Suffragist's side and the vote was deadlocked at 48 for and 48 against. The second roll was taken and the vote remained 48 to 48.

With wilted collars and frayed nerves, the legislators squared off for the third roll call. A blatant red rose on his breast, Harry Burn--the youngest member of the legislature--suddenly broke the deadlock. Despite his red rose, he voted in favor of the bill and the house erupted into pandemonium. With his "yea," Burn had delivered universal suffrage to all American women. The outraged opponents to the bill began chasing Representative Burn around the room. In order to escape the angry mob, Burn climbed out one of the third-floor windows of the Capitol. Making his way along a ledge, he was able to save himself by hiding in the Capitol attic.

Whether his window escape is fact or folklore, the tactical response by the conservatives is a matter of recorded history.  The New York Times headlines on August 20 reported the anti-suffragists claim that Harry Burn took a bribe in exchange for his vote.   Undeterred, Harry Burn gave the following explanation for his change of heart on the floor of the Tennessee legislature:

And he pulled the telegram from his mother from his pocket, which read as follows:

Dear Son:

Hurrah and vote for suffrage!  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.  Don't forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt (Carrie Chapman Catt) put the "rat" in ratification.

                Your mother.

Happy 85th, my fellow voters.  And to Harry and Mom, wherever you are...

Thank you, on behalf of the so-called tender, too emotional, less intelligent, but far more pure, sex.

Originally posted to willowby on Thu Aug 18, 2005 at 05:32 PM PDT.

Your Email has been sent.