And Tennessee was the state that finally ratified it.
It happened officially on Aug. 18, 1920.
That’s the day after Mrs. Burn, the mother of first-time Tennessee House of Representatives member Harry Burn, a Republican from Niota, wrote her 24-year-old son a letter. That now-famous and historic letter concerned various family matters, with just an additional note about how she nudged him to side with the pro-right-to-vote folks in the then upcoming vote to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States that would give American women the right to vote.
It was the most important and influential vote of Burns’ eventual three-term career.
The ratification of the 19th Amendment came down to the 36th state — that being the state of Tennessee. Six Southern states had already rejected ratifying the amendment.
In addition, the hold-your-breath moment came down to the final deciding vote — the sixth. And that vote belonged to Harry Burn.
The issue that caused such vehement uproar and division — not just from men who were against it, but from some women who were against it as well — culminated into just 28 words in the 19th Amendment: “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.”
In the previous two rounds of voting, not only did the votes result in ties, Harry Burns voted against the amendment.
But before the third vote came around, Burn had received that aforementioned letter from his mom.
But hers wasn’t the only female influence trying to sway the vote. Reportedly, women converged on Nashville from all corners of the state — by carriage, on foot, by cart and by car, according to Judy Baker, who was the storyteller and historical interpreter for Monday’s Women’s Council program on “The History of Women’s Right to Vote” presented at the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce.
The women called, she added. They sent telegrams. The summer heat was obsessive. The summer storms drenched them all. But they were determined. They would not give up.
“‘This last battle was desperate,’” Baker reported. The opponents against ratification took up wearing red roses as a symbol of their beliefs. Yellow roses became the symbol of the suffragettes. A different “War of the Roses” took place at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, where both sides held their last stands.
On that historic day in August in Nashville, the state Legislature was awash in roses, yellow and red, as the third vote took place. And, as the legend now goes, Baker said Burn actually sported a rose that day — a red one. He had voted against ratification twice before.
But, Baker asked, “What good son would ever go against his mother’s wishes?” In the letter, his mother wrote, “Vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt.”
When his name was called, to what must have been shock and surprise by the intensely anticipating audience, Burn answered “yes” — and the 19th Amendment became the law of the land.
A cheer went up. Pandemonium broke out.
After decades of struggle, women finally had gained the right to vote.
“But it was hard won,” Baker reminded the audience of the many women, over the decades, who suffered and fought hard.
Baker also applauded the “courage of male legislators” of the time to risk their jobs, and even their lives, to support women’s right to vote.
One legislator was pushed by his dying wife on her deathbed not to miss the vote for supporting women’s right to vote. He cast the deciding vote for ratification. She died while he was away, and he only returned to attend her funeral.
Another legislator refused to have his broken shoulder set so he could make it to the Legislature to place his vote for the right for women to vote before he had his medical issues attended.
Another had been sick in a hospital bed for six months, and insisted on being taken to the Legislature floor so he wouldn’t miss his chance to vote “Yes” to ratification.
But the cause of getting women the right to vote was championed 20 years before Tennessee even became a state, back in 1776, when the future first lady and mother of another president urged John Adams, the second president, to be mindful to remember women in the laws of the new nation because men and women had to work together to help the fledgling country succeed. At that point, women, especially after they were married, had no control over their lives, Baker reminded the assembled crowd.
“(The husband) had control of what she wore, what she ate, where she went,” Baker said. But the struggle continued in waves, stopping largely during periods of war, but never ending, from the day Mrs. Adams first admonished her husband that “we are determined to foment a rebellion.”
“Unfortunately, most voters today do not realize the struggle and sacrifice it took to make those 28 words a reality,” Baker pointed out. “It’s a wonderful story and one that shouldn’t be forgotten.”
A myriad of well-known names, over decades, even centuries, including the well-known activist Susan B. Anthony, for whom the bill was named, even though she died in 1906 and didn’t see it pass, were presented by Baker during her presentation.
She also pointed to many attempts at how the suffragette movement tried to organize, tried to change minds, tried to get legislation passed — with this bill being introduced into every session of Congress starting in 1879, all finally culminating in the 19th Amendment passing both branches of the Legislature in 1919.
By February 1920, 32 states had ratified the amendment. With only 48 states in the union at that time, 36 states or three-fourths, were needed to ratify. After Oklahoma, West Virginia and Washington state ratified, that left just one more that was needed, which eventually turned out to be Tennessee.
But Baker also talked about many people — mostly women — but many men, by name, date and place. She stressed “that doesn’t mean there weren’t millions of others whose names we don’t know ... I was just struck by the tenacity women have when they come together for the common good.”
The main reason for presenting this program at this time, Baker said, was because it is a presidential election year. It is all the more important to remind people, especially women, not to take their right to vote lightly, with what Baker called the “dismal” voter turnout in the 2010 Congressional election.
“Every little girl should know this marvelous story,” said Margaret Schenck, a member of the Women’s Council.
“The timing, this being an election year, was perfect,” said Tracey Wright, director of special programs and community relations at Cleveland State Community College. “Especially as women recognize the great lengths others have gone to to have this right to cast our votes. ... Young women need to understand it is not a right to be taken likely. Major sacrifices were made to achieve this.”
And if the audience took nothing else away from Monday’s presentation, Baker said, “Women today take it for granted. ... All you have to make sure you do is vote.”