On August 18th, our state and our nation recognize the 100th birthday of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to our U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote. Tennessee was the 36th state to ratify the amendment, which was the number needed to mark the three-fourths required for ratification of what was then the 48 states.
This historic vote was taken in the same House Chamber that we use today and the one in which I once served. Congress had proposed the amendment the previous summer in June 1919. One year later, thirty-five of the forty-eight states had ratified the amendment, with four states considering holding legislative voting sessions on the issue. However, only Tennessee issued a call for a special session. That session met in August 1920 in what many knew would be a contentious vote.
What ensued during that Special Session was dubbed the “war of the roses,” with its primary battle waged in Nashville. It was called the war of the roses due to the fact that those favoring the 19th Amendment wore yellow roses on their lapels. In direct opposition, the flowers of choice for their opposition were red roses.
The roses helped the Suffragists count their votes. This was how they knew that they did not have enough votes at that time to secure the vote. Having been in legislative sessions where there were close votes, I can attest to the fact that the wearing of roses to indicate a “yes” or “no” would have been a very handy tool. The first roll call on the 19th Amendment was locked down in a 48 to 48 tie vote.
Among legislators participating in that session was Harry Burn, a twenty-four year old lawmaker from Niota, Tennessee. Burn was the youngest member of the General Assembly when he was elected at age twenty-two. He had originally planned to vote no on the ratification. However, after receiving a letter from his mother asking him to do the right thing and vote in favor of the amendment, he changed his mind. Burn’s vote broke the tie in favor of ratifying the amendment. The next day he told his colleagues in the House of Representatives that he changed his vote because his mother asked him to and that she had always taught him that “a good boy always does what his mother asks him to do.”
Although Harry’s mother got all the acclaim at the time, years later, Burn expressed that it was his respect for her that really changed his mind: “I had always believed that women had an inherent right to vote. It was a logical attitude from my standpoint. My mother was a college woman, a student of national and international affairs who took an interest in all public issues. She could not vote. Yet the tenant farmers on our farm, some of whom were illiterate, could vote. On that roll call, confronted with the fact that I was going to go on record for time and eternity on the merits of the question, I had to vote for ratification.”
Just over a week after Tennessee’s ratification, the 19th Amendment was formally adopted into the U.S. Constitution. It ended this nation’s 70-year struggle over suffrage and gave all female citizens of the United States the right to vote. We are thankful that we have the opportunity to look back on such a historic day, 100 years later, and reflect on an important vote that changed our nation for women.
I have a deep respect for the history that has taken place in the chambers of our House of Representatives and State Senate. It certainly is highlighted by such events as the birthday of this great day in our nation’s history!