Today in 1920: The Nineteenth Amendment is ratified

August 18, 2016

Today in Legal HistoryAs far as presidential election years go, 2016 has thus far been an eventful one.  After a chaotic primary season, two candidates – Donald Trump on the Republican side and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic one – emerged as their respective party’s candidate.

Clinton’s nomination represents an historic milestone: the first female presidential candidate for a major U.S. political party.  If elected, Clinton would create another important historic event, as the first female U.S. president.

Given the current state of the race, in which Clinton is the favorite to win the White House, it may be difficult to believe that women have only been constitutionally guaranteed the right to vote for less than 100 years.

Today, in fact, marks the 96th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote regardless of sex.  The amendment achieved ratification with the approval of the amendment by the Tennessee House of Representatives – narrowly, one might add, by a vote of 49-47.

But the amendment’s road to ratification wasn’t an easy one.

The amendment as ratified was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on May 21, 1919, by Representative James R. Mann (although the amendment had been repeatedly introduced in the Senate since January 1878).  The amendment passed the House by a vote of 304-89.

On June 4, 1919, the Senate passed the Nineteenth Amendment by a vote of 56-25, two votes over the required two-thirds majority.  At that point, the amendment was sent to the states for ratification.

A number of Northern states, such as Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas, New York, and Ohio, all approved the amendment within the same month.  By March of 1920, 35 states in total had approved the amendment – but one more was still needed.

Unfortunately, a number of states, including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia, had rejected the amendment.  And Tennessee appeared to be the next state to do so.

Specifically, after a motion to table the amendment was defeated with a 48-48 tie, pro-suffragist advocates feared that the final vote would lead to the defeat of the amendment.

The passage of the amendment is owed to Harry Burn, the then-24-year-old representative who was only elected two years earlier as the youngest member of the state legislature.  Burn switched his vote at the last minute after receiving a letter from his mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn.  The letter 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.

Burn’s “aye” vote in approval of the amendment more than surprised his fellow legislators, and it directly led to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

The follow day, when explaining his last-minute switch to the legislature, he noted a moral and legal duty to ratify, but he also admitted his mother’s influence in his decision:

I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.

Thus, the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification was directly triggered by a son taking his mother’s advice – an almost poetic origin to the amendment.