Forty-eight to forty-eight. That count had been reached and then verified by the Tennessee State House of Representatives. The resolution was still alive. The state senate already had passed it. If the resolution were tabled, then that probably would spell its death.
Under consideration was whether or not to ratify the proposed 19th amendment to the Constitution, which would grant women’s suffrage. As with any proposed amendment, two-thirds of the states had to vote for ratification in order for the amendment to be passed.
On this muggy August day in 1920, Tennessee was the final state needed in order to give women the right to vote. Women had waited a long time for this day…but would Tennessee make them wait even longer?
When Thomas Jefferson, principal writer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote that “all men are created equal,” that’s what he meant. Few at the time of the document’s writing would have thought that “men” was generic for “men and women,” any more than they would have thought the words were intended to include people of color or people who didn’t own property.
Seventy-two years after the Declaration of Independence was ratified, America’s women still waited to have a say in their nation’s decisions and future. They therefore organized the first major women’s rights conference, which took place in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York.
Thirty years after that, women still waited…though far less patiently. Some openly picketed the White House or sent letters to the president and members of Congress asking when women would be given the chance to vote. Women were heard…sort of.
In 1878, a women’s suffrage amendment was first introduced in Congress. It failed to get anywhere. It was re-introduced multiple times. Several states and territories began to grant women the right to vote, but it was not the law of the land.
The amendment finally gained a toe-hold in 1918. The night before it was re-introduced in Congress, President Woodrow Wilson gave a rousing speech favoring its ratification. Despite his words, the amendment failed in the House by one vote and in the Senate by two votes.
By 1919, members of both parties wanted to get a women’s suffrage amendment passed ahead of the 1920 general election. President Wilson called a special session of Congress to consider the amendment, and this time, it finally passed.
But, as noted, it couldn’t become the 19th Amendment to the Constitution without being approved by two-thirds of the states. Wisconsin was the first to vote “yes.” Many states followed suit, but the South was recalcitrant. Texas and Arkansas voted in favor, but many other states below the Mason-Dixon Line—including North Carolina—voted “no.”
Would Tennessee become yet another Southern state that would try to deny women’s suffrage, nearly 75 years after the Seneca Falls women’s rights conference?
After the first count ended in a tie, Tennessee House Speaker Seth Walker brought the proposed amendment back up for consideration. Harry Burns, a Republican Congressman from McMinn County, had voted “nay” the first time around.
Just 24, Burns wasn’t a boat-rocker. His McMinn County constituents were deeply divided over the issue of women’s suffrage, so he stood to lose votes whatever he decided. In fact, those opposed probably slightly outnumbered those in favor of the amendment.
Nonetheless, Burns wasn’t just a politician. He was a son. And on August 18, 1920, he had in his breast pocket a letter from his mother, which stated, in part, “Vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt…Don’t forget to be a good boy.”
Burns heeded the words of his mom, a tough-minded, hard-working farm widow. He changed his vote to “aye” and the 19th Amendment passed. The United States Secretary of State signed the amendment into law on August 26, 1920.
Just over 50 years later, New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug introduced a bill in Congress that would designate August 26 as Women’s Equality Day, and it became law. Ever since, the day reminds Americans that, although they gained the right to vote, many women do not feel they gained the same rights and privileges as men. The fight that began at Seneca Falls continues, but at least Harry Burns did his mama proud.