“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,” the amendment reads. “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
The impact of those thirty-nine simple words is felt by every American woman but their history is not well known.
It is a rich history in which our beloved state of Tennessee played a pivotal role. Without Tennessee, the Nineteenth Amendment might not have passed and history would have been starkly different for generations of American women.
This month we celebrate Mother’s Day
As a Tennessee mother, grandmother, and the first woman elected U.S. Senator from Tennessee, I can think of no finer tribute than to share the little-known story of one Tennessean, Representative Harry Burn and his beloved mother, Miss Febb.
This Tennessee mom and her son changed the course of American history and ensured women were afforded the basic right of a citizen in a democracy – the right to vote.
The Founding Fathers made it procedurally difficult to amend the U.S. Constitution. It takes a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and ratification by three-fourths of the states in order to amend our constitution.
But what many people do not know is that Tennessee played the decisive role in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. Situated between pro-suffrage states to its north and west and anti-suffrage states to its south and east, Tennessee was both literally and figuratively in the middle of the fight to secure ratification in the early 20th century.
On June 4, 1919, members of the Sixty-Sixth Congress of the United States reached the two-thirds majority required under the Constitution for passage of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. But the battle was far from over. They still needed three-fourths of the 48 states to ratify it.
Cynics predicted that it would take two decades for the amendment to become law, but the suffragists were determined to act both before memories of American women’s contributions to the Allied victory in World War I faded, and before the presidential election of 1920. They knew that public opinion was shifting towards their side but they had to move quickly.
By the summer of 1920, 35 of the 36 states necessary had ratified the amendment. Eight states had rejected the amendment, and five had not voted. Suffragists saw Tennessee as their last, best hope for ratification before the 1920 presidential election.
Governor Albert Roberts called a special session of the Tennessee General Assembly on August 9th — right before the ratification period was to expire — to consider the issue. Pro-suffrage and anti-suffrage activists from around the state and the country descended on Nashville, intent on influencing the legislature.
In the blazing heat of the summer, fistfights broke out in the lobby of the Hermitage Hotel, where legislators, suffragists, and antisuffragists lived during the special session.
There was even a war of roses at the old hermitage. Every morning, the lobby of the hotel filled with red roses, the antisuffrage symbol. Yellow roses symbolized suffragist votes.
The Senate was solidly pro-suffrage and ratified the amendment in just four days. The House – being virtually split – was delayed.
After weeks of intense lobbying and debate, a motion to table the amendment was defeated with a 48-48-tie vote. The speaker called the measure to a ratification vote. Many thought the vote was sure to end in another deadlock.
But that morning Harry Burn, a 24-year-old, first-term representative from McMinn County in East Tennessee received a note from his mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn, better known as Miss Febb. Until that time, Burn had fallen squarely in the antisuffrage camp.
In it, she implored her son to support suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt, and told him to “be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”
Harry Burn followed his mother’s wishes and voted aye. The final tally was 50-46. Tennessee had ratified the Nineteenth amendment and secured the vote for millions of American women.
Because Harry loved his mother and heeded her advice, doors of
opportunity were opened for future daughters of Tennessee and America.
This Mother’s Day, let us pay tribute to the Volunteer State’s proud history in securing the right to vote for American women. Let us reaffirm our belief in the power of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to change the course of history for the better. And above all, let us remember to always listen to the wisdom of our mothers.
Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood is the first woman elected to serve Tennessee as a United States Senator. Before her election, she served eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives as the first woman elected to the House from Tennessee in her own right, as well as two terms in the Tennessee State Senate.
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