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Civics 101: Tennessee played pivotal role in women's quest for voting rights

J.H. Osborne • Aug 20, 2018 at 3:15 PM

This week’s “Civics 101” focuses on the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified on August 18, 1920, thanks to one vote by one Tennessee lawmaker cast on the advice of his mother.

• The 19th Amendment states, “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 other words, it granted women the right to vote.

• Early in 1919, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 19th Amendment by a vote of 304 to 90, and the Senate approved it 56 to 25.

• To take effect, a minimum of 36 state legislatures needed to ratify it. Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan were the first states to do so.

• In the summer of 1920, Tennessee’s governor called a special session of the General Assembly to consider the issue — putting the state in the position to be the needed 36th “yes” for ratification.

• On August 18, 1920, it appeared that Tennessee had ratified the amendment — the result of a change of vote by legislator Harry T. Burn at the insistence of his elderly mother. But those against the amendment managed to delay official ratification. Anti-suffrage legislators fled the state to avoid a quorum, and their associates held massive anti-suffrage rallies and attempted to convince pro-suffrage legislators to oppose ratification. However, Tennessee reaffirmed its vote and delivered the crucial 36th ratification necessary for final adoption.

• Gov. Albert H. Roberts signed the ratification document on August 24, 1920 and sent it to the federal government.

• Some states were slow with their endorsement even after the amendment became a part of the supreme law of the land. Maryland, for example, did not ratify the amendment until 1941, and did not transmit the ratification document to the State Department until 1958.

• Sullivan County Administrator of Elections Jason Booher uses the story of a young state lawmaker and his decisive vote in that historic national issue when he talks to local high school students about the importance of voting.

“I explain to the students that if they feel the concerns and issues of their generation are being ignored, they have the power to change that by voting,” Booher told the Times News earlier this year. “I share with them the history of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote. What was known as ‘the War of the Roses’ came to Tennessee in 1920 as the state considered ratification. After two tie votes of the Tennessee General Assembly, State Representative Harry T. Burn from McMinn County — the hills of East Tennessee — switched his vote in favor of ratification, giving all women throughout the country the right to vote.”

• Burn, 22 when he was elected state representative, attributed his change of mind to a letter he received from his mother, Febb Burn, which encouraged him “... be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.” Burn is often quoted as having said, “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow.”

• “Mrs. Catt” is a reference to Carrie Chapman Catt, who founded the League of Women Voters during the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, held just six months before the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote after a 72-year struggle.

Sources: National Archives, Tennessee State Museum, League of Women Voters

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