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by Mary Skinner
In 1920, it was Tennessee’s deciding vote that ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and gave American women the right to vote. Tennessee women of different races and economic backgrounds worked to persuade state legislators to vote for women’s suffrage.
In the early 1900s, Tennessee suffragists marched for women’s voting rights in communities across the state wearing the colors adopted by the National American Woman Suffrage Association — white and golden yellow. These colors stood for purity and hope, respectively, and were used during parades. They carried golden yellow banners which they created to express the spirit of the movement, and later yellow roses became an emblem of the suffrage cause. In contrast, the anti-suffragists adopted red roses as their symbol. What ensued was a “war of the roses.”
By August 1920, the spotlight was on Nashville where the final battle for women’s voting rights would take place. The 19th Amendment was just one state shy of ratification, with thirty-five states having already passed it. American women needed Tennessee’s vote to make it the “Perfect Thirty-Six.” A special session of the Tennessee legislature was called, and members of the General Assembly “showed their colors” by wearing roses on their lapels. By counting the number of red roses worn by the representatives, it appeared that the amendment would be defeated.
The battle came down to one man: Harry T. Burn of Niota, Tennessee, who had a red rose pinned to his lapel. In the end changed his mind and his vote. As the famous story is often told, Burn was influenced by a letter from his mother, Febb Ensminger Burn. She urged him to do the right thing and vote in favor of the amendment. Governor A. H. Roberts signed the bill on August 24, 1920 and two days later, the Susan B. Anthony (Nineteenth) Amendment became national law. Learn more about this fascinating story, and read the letter Mrs. Burn sent her son, by visiting the Museum’s education website TN4me.org.
Artifacts related to Women's Suffrage
The roses faded away, but many other mementos of this historic time are still with us. The beautiful yellow-gold banners, hand painted and embroidered, which the suffragists carried with pride, can be found in historic collections across America. The Tennessee State Museum has three suffrage banners in its collection. One, which is pictured here, is currently on display in the Change and Challenge Gallery.
This banner is from the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Campaign Committee, a group of suffragists that helped establish local suffrage leagues throughout the state. It was pictured in an article published in the Tennessean on January 18, 1948, as found in the collection at the Tennessee State Library & Archives. The image appeared with the following caption: “A photograph of Jeanette Tillotson Acklen holding the banner she marched behind during the Tennessee campaign for women’s suffrage. Her husband, Joseph H. Acklen, son of Adelicia and Joseph Acklen, was a U.S. Representative and strong proponent of suffrage.”
Special Women's History Month Events
This March, during Women’s History month, the Museum will present a Lunch & Learn lecture, Discovering Women through Material Culture, presented by Tusculum University professor Dr. Angela Keaton. The event takes place at noon on Wednesday, March 13 in the Museum's Digital Learning Center and is free to the public.
The Tennessee State Museum is a member of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Centennial Collaborative (TWSCC), an organization that was organized to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment. On Saturday, March 30, at 1 p.m., TWSCC will present a free public symposium, The Road to Suffrage: Memphis, at the Pink Palace Museum. Celebrate women’s history this month by attending one of these free events. If you are so inclined, wear white with a yellow rose in honor of women’s voting rights.
Header Image Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library & Archives. Marching Suffragettes, ca. 1915, Sadie Warner Frazer Papers. Women march for the right to vote in this Nashville parade.
Mary Skinner, the Tennessee State Museum’s Community and Media Relations Officer, serves on the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Centennial Collaborative.