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The Vote That Saved Suffrage

In 1920, the right for women to vote hinged on a single man in Tennessee. He listened to his mother, and the rest is history.

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In the United States, the right to vote is shared by men and women alike – but that wasn’t always the case! The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution officially granted women suffrage, or the right to vote, in 1920.

The fight for women’s suffrage began many years earlier, with some of the best-known leaders in the movement also fighting for abolition – the end of slavery – and Prohibition – which outlawed alcohol. By 1920, all three of these goals had been met, but it was a long road and a hard fight. As Sarah Cowgill explained in her article on the 19th Amendment, the right to vote regardless of gender came down to one man in the state of Tennessee, Representative Harry T. Burn.

By mid-1920, both houses of Congress had voted for the 19th Amendment, and 35 of the 36 states needed had ratified it. There were only five states left, and Connecticut, Vermont, North Carolina, and Florida refused to consider it. That left only Tennessee. On August 18, 1920, the state House of Representatives gathered. People wore rose-shaped pins to show which side they were on; those who supported suffrage wore yellow roses, and those who opposed wore red ones. While the state Senate had already voted to ratify, the House was evenly split. Out of 96 legislators gathered, 48 wore the red rose and 48 wore yellow.

Rep. Burn actually wore a red rose on his lapel. He had been pressured by many in his district to vote against suffrage. He voted to table, or delay, the ratification both times that vote came up. But he also had a letter from his mother, Febb E. Burn, in his suit pocket. In it, she had written, “Hurrah and vote for suffrage, and don’t keep them in doubt.” She mentioned specifically another legislator’s speech, which she called “very bitter.”

State Senator Herschel M. Candler had said he was there “representing the mothers who are at home rocking the cradle and not representing the low neck and high skirt variety.” He called National American Woman Suffrage Association President Carrie Chapman Catt an anarchist and made other hateful remarks about her.

About her son’s re-election campaign and worries that supporting suffrage might cost him his seat, Mrs. Burn said: “I hope you see enough of politicians to know it is not one of the greatest things to be one. What say ye??” So, after the vote to table tied 48-48 twice in a row, Rep. Burn followed his mother’s advice. When his name was called in the ratification roll call, he answered, “aye,” and took off his red rose.

Harry T. Burn

While many tried to stop it from happening, the state of Tennessee officially ratified the 19th Amendment, and it became law. Because Tennessee was the last state needed and because they ratified by a single vote, Tennessee was called the “Perfect 36.”

Later, Burn said that he had voted to table the ratification so that it could be voted on in the next legislative session. However, when it came to the floor vote, he did as his mother had asked. “I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification,” he said. “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.”

Mrs. Burn said that she was pressured by the Louisiana governor’s wife to deny her own letter and call it a fraud, but she refused. She even sent a telegram by Western Union the day after the vote to make sure her son wasn’t fooled into changing his vote. It read: “Any statement claiming to be from me is false. Repudiate same and support suffrage to the end.”

A lot of people were angry with Rep. Burn for voting as he did, and the governor even assigned a personal guard to protect him. At 24, he was the youngest man in the legislature. While he might have worried that this vote would cost him his seat, he ended up being just fine. He won that re-election, and it was just the beginning to a long career in politics.

James is our wordsmith extraordinaire, a legislation hound and lover of all things self-reliant and free. An author of politics and fiction (often one and the same) at and, he homesteads in the Arkansas wilderness.

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