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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Grace Allen
One of my favorite events in Tennessee history happened 100 years ago on this very month, Aug. 18, 1920. It has all the parts of a great story: a fight for equality, a last-minute letter, and a decision that changed the country. It’s the true tale of how women got the right to vote in the United States.
Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Did you know women couldn’t vote in some places in the United States until 1920? Women fought for the right to vote for over seventy years. Suffragists, or people who supported women’s right to vote, finally got their chance in 1919 with an amendment. An amendment is a change or addition to the United States Constitution. This amendment gave women the right to vote in all parts of the United States and said no one could stop women from voting. The 19th Amendment passed in the federal government in Washington D.C. in 1919, but that didn’t mean it was official yet. An amendment has to be ratified by three-fourths of the states before it is added to the constitution. That meant 36 states also had to vote yes on the amendment.
Over the next year, the suffragists won 35 states. They only needed one more. Unfortunately, there weren’t many states left. It looked like Tennessee was the only state that might say yes. Governor A.H. Roberts called for a special session of the Tennessee legislature to vote on the amendment. People from all over the country came to Tennessee to see what would happen.
Letter to Mary Shaut White sealed with a Woman’s Party Convention Stamp. The Woman’s Party took place in 1916 and was a different suffrage organization from the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
The suffragists knew the vote would be very close. The anti-suffragists, men and women who did not support woman suffrage, were working just as hard as the suffragists. They had many supporters in the legislature and in many businesses. Some white southerners were also anti-suffragists because they did not want African American women to vote. At the time, there were state laws that kept most African American men from voting. Some people feared a federal amendment would change these laws. These anti-suffragists wanted to keep voting restrictions the way they were.
Both the anti-suffragists and the suffragists had their headquarters at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville. This was a way to keep an eye on the legislators since many stayed at the hotel. The anti-suffragists wore red roses and the suffragists wore yellow roses. This final battle for woman’s suffrage in Tennessee was called the War of the Roses. As you can imagine, the tensions were very high.
Anti-suffrage Pin, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
The Tennessee State Senate met on August 13th for the first vote on the amendment. The suffragists won with a landslide vote at 25 to 4. But the suffragists knew the House of Representatives was going to be much harder to win over. If they lost the vote there, the amendment would fail. The suffragists talked to legislators and counted the yellow roses leading up to the next vote. It looked like they might not have enough votes.
The Tennessee House of Representatives met a few days later, on August 18, 1920. The Speaker of the House was named Seth Walker. He was an anti-suffragist and tried to table the vote. That means to put the vote off to the next time they met. That wouldn’t be until the next year! The suffragists knew if it was tabled, the vote was likely to fail later. Walker called for a vote to table the amendment. He thought he had enough votes, but he was wrong. The vote was tied. He called for a revote and it was still tied 48 votes for and 48 votes against. Speaker Walker knew if he called for a vote on the amendment it could not pass with a tie. So, he called for a third and final vote, this time on the actual amendment.
The suffragists watched anxiously from the balconies in the House Chamber. They knew this vote could mean victory or defeat. Each legislator gave their answer: yes or no. Then Representative Harry Burn from Niota, Tennessee stood up. He was very conflicted. He wore a red rose and had voted to table the amendment on advice he was given. But he had also received a letter that morning with different advice. The letter was from his mother, Febb Burn. She told him, “Vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt… Don’t forget to be a good boy and help put the ‘Rat’ in ratification.” Her letter was still in his pocket when gave his answer. He stood up and said “aye.” That means he voted yes to the Amendment! This was the one vote needed to break the tie.
Governor A.H Roberts signs the 19th Amendment, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
As a result, the 19th Amendment passed. Tennessee became the final state needed to ratify the amendment. A few days later, on August 24th, 1920, Governor Roberts signed the amendment. On August 26th it was officially added to the United States Constitution. As a result, millions of women from all over the country finally got the right to vote.
Mary Shaut White’s Voter Registration Certificate, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Unfortunately, not all women were able to vote. Many state laws kept African American women from voting. People of American Indian and Asian heritage also did not have the right to vote until much later. This only changed after many more years of struggle and several federal laws. The 19th Amendment was not the end of the story of suffrage. But the 100th anniversary of woman’s suffrage is an exciting chapter in that story. We can be proud to celebrate the important role our state played in this landmark event.
Suffragists – People who supported women’s right to vote
Ratify – To agree to an amendment through a vote
Anti-suffragists – People who were against women’s right to vote
Table – To delay a vote on an amendment or law to another time
What color roses did the suffragists wear? The anti-suffragists?
Where did the suffragists set up their headquarters in Nashville and why?
Why do you think its important to have the right to vote?
Watch this tutorial on how to make tissue paper flowers. Use some yellow tissue paper and follow the instructions and make some yellow roses to have at home.
Grace Allen is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.