Kickoff of a Year-Long Celebration of
Women’s Right to Vote – August 24, 2019
Mary Obersteadt, President Nashville Republican Women;
Susan Witcher, TFRW; and Constance Cromwell, President Williamson
County Republican Women, placing a wreath at the
Women’s Suffrage Memorial on August 24, 2019.
Patricia Heim, The Honorable Beth Harwell, and Mary Oberstead –
all members of Nashville Republican Women
Tennessee Casts the Deciding Vote to Ratify the 19th Amendment
On June 4, 1919, the 66th U.S. Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. To complete the adoption of the amendment (which would give women the right to vote), three-fourths of the states had to ratify the amendment.
By the middle of 1920, a total of 35 states had voted to ratify (36 states were required). There was only one state left where a vote could be taken that year – Tennessee. Four other available states – Connecticut, Vermont, North Carolina and Florida – would not consider the resolution for various reasons. The remaining states had rejected the amendment. Anti-suffragists believed that if Tennessee failed in the vote, The Perfect 36 would never be realized and the law would die.
In August 1920, Tennessee Governor A. H. Roberts agreed to consider the resolution and the national drama to ratify the 19th Amendment brought its final and most spectacular act to Nashville. Reporters from New York, Chicago, Washington, Boston and other cities descended on Nashville to cover the historic vote. Women from across the nation, lead by National suffrage leader, Carrie Chapman Catt, traveled to Nashville to help spearhead the drive for ratification. From her suite, she joined forces with prominent Tennessee leaders, including Anne Dallas Dudley of Nashville and founder of the League of Women Voters, Sue Shelton White of Jackson, Abby Crawford Milton of Chattanooga, and worked with all supporters, such as black activist Frankie Pierce. Despite their diversity, they were united under a single symbol: the yellow rose.
Carrie Catt said her Nashville experience was “the last and most harrowing six weeks of the whole 72 years that women had to fight for the ballot in these ‘free and equal’ United States.”
The Hermitage Hotel was the headquarters for both the pro-suffragists and the anti-suffragists. There were regular trips on the route between the hotel and the state capitol. What ensued was called the War of the Roses. Those for the ratification wore yellow roses and those against wore red roses. Even the legislators showed their colors by wearing the roses in the lapels.
Ratification was a hard fought battle in Tennessee. Suffragists and Antis had been in Nashville all summer preparing for the fight. Both sides made the Hermitage Hotel their headquarters during this time.
Counting the number of red roses worn by the representatives, the Suffragists knew they were in trouble for the pending vote coming up on August 18, 1920. By the roses, it appeared that the amendment would be defeated 47 for and 49 against.
On August 19, 1920, the amendment came up for a vote amid yellow roses worn by the suffragists and red roses worn by the antis. A motion was made to table the amendment. If that motion passed, the 19th Amendment would be dead in Tennessee. The motion was defeated by a tie vote.
On August 20, 1920, the first vote was taken. Rep. Banks Turner from Gibson County came over to the Suffragists side and the vote was deadlocked at 48-48. A second roll call was taken and it was still 48-48.
So the legislators squared off and a third roll call was taken. Despite the red rose on his breast, Representative Harry Burn from McMinn County, the youngest member of the Legislature, suddenly broke the deadlock. He voted in favor of the bill and the House erupted into pandemonium. With his “yes”, Burn had delivered universal suffrage to American women.
Legend has it that Burn’s decisive vote caused turmoil among his colleagues and he went into an office, closing the door behind him, and left through a window of the Capitol and made his way along the ledge, to the corridor, and slipped into the Capitol attic.It was so hot that he could not breathe, so he soon left and went across the plaza to the Hermitage Hotel lobby and out the back door. The next day, when tempers cooled, Representative Burn explained why he voted yes. He pulled a letter from his jacket that his mother Mr. J. L. Burn of Niota, Tennessee, had written him that read:
Hurrah and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt! I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt (Carrie Chapman Catt) put the “rat” in ratification.
He then said, “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”
Burn also commented, “I appreciate the fact that an opportunity such as this seldom comes to mortal man – to free 27 million women from political slavery was mine.”
The legislation was signed into law on August 24, 1920 by Governor A. H. Roberts. 144 years after the Declaration of Independence and 72 years after the Suffrage movement began, Tennessee, The Perfect 36, had done it – and by just one vote.
The Women’s Suffrage Monument, located in Centennial Park, honors the Tennessee suffragists and the men in the Tennessee Legislature who said “yes” on the 19th Amendment.