Never underestimate the power of a letter.
Or the influence of “mom.”
Although the 15th Amendment (1870) granted Black men the right to vote, it ignored women. They continued to live as citizens with limited civil rights, especially if they lived east of the Mississippi River.
It would be the eve of the roaring ’20s before Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution (04 June 1919).
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
It had been a long struggle since the Seneca Falls Convention on 19 July 1848. Although nine western states had adopted woman suffrage legislation by 1912, the Amendment had languished in Congress since 1878.
For historical context, on 06 April 1917 the United States had declared war on the German Empire, three years after World War I began. Congress had passed the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) in 1917; states ratified it in 1919.
In 1917, suffragists descended on Washington to make their case for women’s right to vote.
Critics resented the women picketing a wartime president; authorities arrested some 500 women, and as many as 170 suffered imprisonment.
Tennessee suffragist Sue Shelton White, state chair of the National Woman’s Party, burned a picture of President Woodrow Wilson while picketing. “She was the only Tennessee suffragist to spend time in jail for suffrage work,” according to the Jackson (TN) Sun.
According to author Paula Casey, suffragists were the first group “to picket the White House for a political cause.”
The change in women’s roles in the economy due to World War I, plus the pressure from women’s groups, led President Woodrow Wilson to change his position on the amendment. In a 1918 speech to Congress, Wilson endorsed women’s right to vote.
On 21 May 1919, the House of Representatives passed the amendment (304-90). After 41 years of debate and repeated rejections, the Senate followed suit (56-25) on 04 June 1919.
The House had passed the amendment in 1918 (274-136), but the Senate had rejected it.
Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana who, a year earlier, had become the first woman to serve in Congress, implored her colleagues to support the legislation: “How shall we answer their challenge, gentlemen: how shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?”
The measure went to the 48 states for ratification; 36 were needed to meet Constitutional requirements.
Nine states quickly ratified the amendment in June 1919. Georgia was the first state to reject ratification on 24 July 1919; eight states would vote to reject.
On 22 March 1920, Washington state became the 35th to ratify. The next three votes were “nope”: Mississippi, Delaware and Louisiana. All were slave states.
Arkansas, Texas and Kentucky were the only Confederate states to have ratified the 19th Amendment. With five state votes outstanding, Tennessee Gov. Albert Roberts called a special session of the legislature.
On 18 August 1920, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to ratify the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution. After decades of advocacy and protests, all American women – both White and Black – would be able to vote in the November 1920 presidential election.
The Tennessee Senate easily passed the measure (25-4) earlier in the month, but that was not the case in the state House of Representatives. As a result, thousands of both pro- and anti-suffrage activists headed to Nashville.
Earlier on the 18th, the House was tied (48-48) on a motion to table discussion. That meant it was time for a vote.
The youngest member of the House, 24-year-old Harry Burn, had received a letter from his mother that morning.
“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.” She ended the missive with a rousing endorsement of the great suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt, imploring her son to “be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”
Burn said “aye” so quickly that it took his fellow legislators a few moments to register his unexpected response. With that single syllable he extended the vote to the women of America and ended half a century of tireless campaigning…
The next day, Burn defended his last-minute reversal in a speech to the assembly. For the first time, he publicly expressed his personal support of universal suffrage, declaring, “I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify.” But he also made no secret of [his mother’s] influence—and her crucial role in the story of women’s rights in the United States. “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow,” he explained, “and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”
His mother, Febb Burn, wasn’t a stereotypical southern woman. She was “a college-educated widow who read three newspapers a day and felt strongly that her mind was the equal of any man’s.”
Southern opposition reflected White supremacy. For example, Burn’s mentor, Sen. Herschel M. Candler, had voted in the minority and said this in his Senate speech:
Candler denounced the suffragists as low-class and childless, trying to “put something over on the good women of Tennessee.”
“I am here representing the mothers who are at home rocking the cradle and not representing the low neck and high skirt variety,” Candler said.
He warned that suffrage for women would soon mean “Negroes” holding public office. He called National American Woman Suffrage Association President Carrie Chapman Catt an “anarchist” and said she supported interracial marriage.
The final vote in the House was 50-46. Tennessee Rep. Seth Walker, the anti-suffrage Speaker of the House, changed his vote for parliamentary reasons that he thought might allow him to try to reverse the vote.
But instead, it gave the body a constitutional majority — formally ratifying the 19th Amendment.
Voters sent Rep. Burn back to the House where he would continue to advocate for extending the franchise.
Burn would go on to win reelection, a validation of the aye vote that defined the beginning of a long career in public service — one in which he fought to eliminate the poll tax, increase polling stations and lower the voting age to 18.
Confirming the adage that ‘no good deed goes unpunished’:
For many in the South, the prospect of a federal women’s suffrage amendment also brought back unwelcome memories of the Reconstruction era and passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments… [Tennessee] Democratic Governor Albert Roberts, who worked to get ratification passed, would be rewarded by a defeat in his reelection campaign that November.
On 26 August 1920, US Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the 19th Amendment.
State ratification timeline
- June 1919
- 10 June 1919 – Wisconsin
- 10 June 1919 – Illinois*
- 10 June 1919 – Michigan
- 16 June 1919 – Kansas
- 16 June 1919 – Ohio
- 16 June 1919 – New York
- 24 June 1919 – Pennsylvania
- 25 June 1919 – Massachusetts
- 28 June 1919 – Texas
- July-August 1919
- 02 July 1919 – Iowa
- 03 July 1919 – Missouri
- 24 July 1919 – Georgia
- 28 July 1919 – Arkansas
- 02 August 1919 – Montana
- 02 August 1919 – Nebraska
- September 1919
- 08 September 1919 – Minnesota
- 10 September 1919 – New Hampshire
- 22 September 1919 – Alabama
- 30 September 1919 – Utah
- November-December 1919
- 01 November 1919 – California
- 05 November 1919 – Maine
- 01 December 1919 – North Dakota
- 04 December 1919 – South Dakota
- 14 December 1919 – Colorado
- January 1920
- 06 January 1920 – Kentucky
- 06 January 1920 – Rhode Island
- 13 January 1920 – Oregon
- 16 January 1920 – Indiana
- 27 January 1920 – Wyoming
- 28 January 1920 – South Carolina
- February 1920
- 07 February 1920 – Nevada
- 09 February 1920 – New Jersey
- 11 February 1920 – Idaho
- 12 February 1920 – Virginia
- 11 February 1920 – Arizona
- 21 February 1920 – New Mexico
- 24 February 1920 – Maryland
- 28 February 1920 – Oklahoma
- March, June, July 1920
- 10 March 1920 – West Virginia
- 22 March 1920 – Washington
- 31 March 1920 – Mississippi
- 02 June 1920 – Delaware
- 01 July 1920 – Louisiana
- 18 August 1920 – Tennessee
- Pro forma affirmation
- 14 September 1920 – Connecticut
- 08 February 1921 – Vermont
- 13 May 1969 – Florida
- 06 May 1971 – North Carolina
* Illinois had to vote a second time due to a technicality.
The states that rejected the 19th Amendment but would eventually ratify:
- 06 March 1923 – Delaware
- 29 March 1941 – Maryland
- 12 February 1952 – Virginia
- 08 September 1953 – Alabama
- 01 July 1969 – South Carolina
- 20 February 1970 – Georgia
- 11 June 1970 – Louisiana
- 22 March 1984 – Mississippi
Alaska was not yet a state when the 19th Amendment was ratified. White women in Alaska were granted suffrage rights in 1913.
Timeline: National Park Service
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