Today in 1920: 19th Amendment ratified, giving women right to vote

August 18, 2010

Today in Legal History“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.” – 19th Amendment

Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919, sending it to the states for ratification. And since several southern states opposed the amendment, it all came down to a dramatic vote in the Tennessee capitol, 90 years ago today.

It was a hot and sticky Friday afternoon when Harry T. Burn, a young Republican state representative from a rural Tennessee district, shocked his anti-suffrage colleagues by casting the tie-breaking vote that would extend voting rights to 17 million women.

Febb Burn, mother of Harry T. BurnThe 24-year-old representative changed his vote from “nay” to “aye” after rereading a letter from his mother that he carried in his pocket. Febb Burn (shown here) was a strong-willed widow who ran the family farm. In her seven-page letter, interspersed with family news, she urged her son to vote “yes” on the 19th Amendment. Here are some excerpts:

Dear Son, … Hurray and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed Chandlers’ speech, it was very bitter. I’ve been waiting to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet…. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt with her “Rats.” Is she the one that put rat in ratification, Ha! No more from mama this time. With lots of love, Mama.

Burn wore a red rose on his lapel that day – the symbol of the anti-suffrage crowd – but his intent was only to postpone the vote until after the fall election. However, when efforts to table the amendment failed, a new motion – to ratify the 19th Amendment – came up for a vote, and Burn knew what he had to do.

When he voted “aye,” many of his colleagues assumed that Burn was merely confused about the question on the floor. But when he stood by his vote, their amusement soon gave way  to rage. Burn was accused of being a “traitor to manhood’s honor” and of accepting bribes from the pro-suffrage camp. Even so, he was elected to a second term later that year.

“I had always believed that women had an inherent right to vote,” Burn said, years after his monumental 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.”

And so the 19th Amendment was ratified 90 years ago today, thanks in part to a single letter from a woman to her son, urging him to “be a good boy.”

Envelope of letter from Febb Burn to Harry T. Burn

For a detailed and entertaining retelling of the Harry Burn story, see this excellent article (PDF) from the Tennessee River Valley Consortium’s Teaching American History website.