‘Remember the ladies’ — East Tennessee legislator cast deciding vote for women

Ned Jilton • Mar 12, 2018 at 1:00 PM

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency — and by the way in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”

Those words were written in a letter from Abigail Adams to her husband, John Adams, dated March 31, 1776, as he and his fellow members of the Continental Congress were working toward the creation of a new nation, the United States of America.

In her letter, Abigail went on to say, “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.”

But they did forget the ladies.

They forgot them in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and even in the Bill of Rights.

The women didn’t start a rebellion, as Abigail Adams warned. But they did form groups to influence the new state governments that were forming.

Then came the Civil War.

It was supposed to be a man’s war. Jobs like nursing were men’s work, as it was believed a woman’s delicate sensibilities would not be expected to withstand the sight of wounded men and mangled bodies.

But women like Clara Barton, Dorothea Dix and Harriet Tubman proved them wrong. In fact, the hospital with the best recovery rate on either side during the war was run by a woman, Sally Louisa Tompkins, who was granted an officer’s commission.

Women proved themselves on the battlefield, in the hospitals and even in the factories.

When the war ended, a new voting rights amendment was added to the Constitution granting black Americans the right to vote.

Wait, let me clarify that. It granted black American MEN the right to vote.

Once again, the ladies, black and white, were forgotten.

Then the women did “foment a rebellion,” as Abigail Adams warned so long ago.

Women marched in the streets, attempted to force their way in to vote, protested at the gates of the White House and even resorted to hunger strikes until a suffrage bill was introduced in Congress 50 years after the Civil War.

But the Democratic Party opposed the bill to amend the Constitution and the measure was repeatedly defeated.

Finally, President Woodrow Wilson, himself a Democrat, saw the results of a New York state referendum in favor of the amendment and realized how valuable the women’s vote would be in the approaching election.

With his urging, the bill passed Congress and the 19th Amendment was sent to the states for ratification.

In order for the amendment to become law, 36 of the then 48 states would have to approve it. Thirty-five had approved, but six states had rejected it. It looked as if the measure would fail.

Then Tennessee stepped up and called a session to vote in August of 1920.

The measure quickly passed the state Senate and then moved to the House, where it faced stiff opposition.

Twice a vote to table the motion was tied at 48-48.

When the actual measure came to the floor, the last vote was cast by Harry T. Burn, a young, first-term representative from the tiny East Tennessee town of Niota, population then 467. 

Earlier he had voted to table the motion and announced he would vote against it. Now, with a letter from his mother in his hand, the whole nation waiting and the fate of voting rights for women resting on his shoulders, he quietly changed from a “nay” to an “aye” and the measure passed 49-47.

There were celebrations, first in Nashville and then across the nation as the word spread. Newspapers from coast to coast heralded the Tennessee vote and featured the state on their editorial pages with words of congratulations to the legislature.

On Aug. 24, 1920, Tennessee Gov. Albert H. Roberts certified the vote and two days later U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby officially declared the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

When asked why he cast his vote as he did, Rep. Burn said, “I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

So women finally got the right to vote thanks to the state of Tennessee and a young man who did what his mother told him.

A footnote to this. You would think once the amendment became law the rest of the states would quickly follow suit. Not so.

Virginia didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until 1952 and Mississippi waited until 1984.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]