August 18th, 1920, Tennessee state representatives and national leaders of both the suffrage and anti-suffrage movements crowded the Tennessee Capitol Building in Nashville for the state vote on ratification of the 19th amendment. Thirty five out of the thirty six states needed had ratified and eight states had voted against ratification. This left just five potential states that could ratify the amendment, granting suffrage to women across the nation. One state, Florida, would likely not bring the amendment to the floor for a vote. Connecticut and Vermont were scheduled to vote later in the season, bad timing regarding the 1920 election. Suffragists feared that a political shift in the government during the election could occur as a push back and undo the progress that had been made. The fate of the amendment seemed to be in the hands of North Carolina, whose representatives were locked in fierce debate, and Tennessee, who may have been the amendments last chance. It was clear to all what was riding on this vote as the representatives entered the chamber and the suffragists climbed the steps to the balcony to watch the vote. Suffragist and anti-suffragist leaders had spent weeks lobbying the representatives, advocating for one side or the other. The vote came down to a young man named Harry Burn.
Burn had made Tennessee history two years prior, in 1918, when he became the youngest member of the Tennessee General Assembly at just twenty-two years old. Burn’s vote could have gone either way. A supporter of Suffrage himself, Burn was up for reelection in the fall and knew that many of his constituents opposed the amendment. On August 18th, 1920, Burns entered the chamber with a red rose on his lapel and a letter in his pocket. The red rose, a symbol of the anti-suffrage movement, clearly showed which way Burn would vote. When a motion was made to table the amendment, which would have doomed it in the Tennessee legislature and potentially nationwide, Burn voted in favor. The letter in his pocket told a different story, however. Sent by Mrs. Phoebe Ensminger Burn, Harry’s mother, the letter read “Dear Son, … Hurray and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed Chandlers’ (anti-suffragist) speech, it was very bitter. I’ve been waiting to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet…. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt with her ‘Rats.’ Is she the one that put rat in ratification, Ha! No more from mama this time. With lots of love, Mama.” (Mrs. Catt being Suffragist Leader and President of the National American Women Suffrage Association, Carrie Chapman Catt). After the vote to table the amendment ended in a tie, the assembly brought the matter of ratification to a vote and this time, clutching his mother’s letter, Harry voted aye, swinging the total votes in favor of ratification. After the vote Harry, still wearing his red rose, would rush to the buildings attic to escape the angry crowd of anti-suffragists or just to have a moment of peace and reflection, it is unclear.
With that one letter, and that one vote, Phoebe and Harry Burn’s actions would result in Tennessee ratifying the 19th amendment, becoming the last state needed to ratify for the amendment to pass! This 19th granted many, but not all, women in the United States the right to vote by declaring that voting rights could not be denied on the basis of sex. Burn defended his last minute reversal to vote in favor as a moral obligation, but also gave credit to his mother stating “I know a mothers advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.” Burn narrowly won reelection in November and would continue on to have a long career in politics.
The vote that led to the 19th Amendment. (n.d.). Retrieved August 18, 2020, from https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-man-and-his-mom-who-gave-women-the-vote/
Block, M. (2020, August 17). The Nudge And Tie Breaker That Took Women’s Suffrage From Nay To Yea. Retrieved August 18, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2020/08/17/902345079/the-nudge-and-tie-breaker-that-took-womens-suffrage-from-nay-to-yea