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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 Christopher Grisham
The final fight to ratify the 19th Amendment occurred in Nashville, Tennessee, in August 1920.
The Tennessee State legislature was called into special session. Their one job was to vote on the 19th Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote. The amendment had been passed by Congress the year before. Under the U.S. Constitution, it needed to be approved by 36 states. Thirty-five states had approved it by the spring of 1920. Six states had said no. Tennessee was one of the few that hadn’t voted on it yet.
"Out of Subjection into Freedom" map. Tennessee State Library and Archive.
Suffragists from across the state and nation asked Tennessee Governor A.H. Roberts to call the special session. Suffragists even asked President Woodrow Wilson to put pressure on Roberts. The governor eventually decided to call the special session for August after receiving a telegram from the President.
Anti -vs- Pro Suffragists
Carrie Chapman Catt, an important leader of the suffrage movement in the United States, came to Nashville on July 17. She took a room at the Hermitage Hotel across from the State Capitol. Josephine Pearson, the leader of the anti-suffrage movement in Tennessee, also came to Nashville and stayed at the Hermitage Hotel. Both women were there to get as many votes as possible for their side.
Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Both groups sent representatives to the legislators’ homes to lobby for their votes. They gave speeches. They held large meetings. They marched in parades. When the legislators got to Nashville for the special session, they were met at the train station. Antis handed out red roses as their symbol. The Pros gave yellow roses. More and more people from both sides came to Nashville to push for their cause.
"We can pray."
There were so many rumors that neither side was sure they had enough votes to win. The night before the vote, Catt told her supporters there was only one more thing to do— “We can pray.”
The Senate had voted yes on the amendment on Aug. 13. It was up to the House of Representatives on August 18. With the galleries packed, voting began. There was a motion to table the amendment twice, meaning that the amendment would not be voted on and would not pass. Both times, the vote to table was tied 48 to 48.
House Speaker Seth Walker, who was against the amendment, realized that if the vote on the amendment itself was tied that it would not pass. He quickly called for a vote. As the voting began, no one knew that one of the representatives, Harry Burn of Niota, was struggling to make up his mind.
A letter from his mother
Burn had worn the red rose of the anti-suffragists. He had also voted to table and defeat the amendment. But, in his pocket he had a letter from his mother. His mother, Febb Burn, wrote:
Hurrah and vote suffrage!...Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the “rat” in ratification. Your Mother.
See the actual letter here.
Harry T. Burn Papers, C.M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Public Library.
When Burn’s name was called, he had to make a choice. He quietly said “aye” or yes. At first, no one was sure what they had heard. The crowd became more excited as the word was passed. At the end of the roll call, it was announced that the amendment passed. Harry’s vote broke the tie.
The galleries erupted with a roar. Women were screaming, crying, and singing. Legislators were hugging each other in the aisles. As the word spread, the pro-suffragists outside started celebrating. Carrie Chapman Catt, who was sitting in her hotel room waiting, heard the news through her window.
As the 36th state to ratify the amendment, and the last one needed to make it law, Tennessee was called the “perfect 36.” And women across the country celebrated the vote.
Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Special Session – the Governor can call a special session to have the legislature meet outside of their normal meeting times. This is usually only done for very important issues.
Amendment – A change or addition. There are 27 amendments to the Constitution. The first 10 are known as the Bill of Rights.
Suffragists- Someone who fights for the right to vote.
Suffrage – The ability to vote. People who wanted women to have the right to vote were known as suffragists.
Anti-Suffrage – Anti-suffrage groups worked to prevent women from getting the right to vote.
Lobby – To try and convince a law maker to vote a certain way.
Table (a bill) – When you table a bill, you are stopping all discussion and not holding a vote. It is a way to prevent a bill from passing without actually voting no on it.
What year did Tennessee ratify the 19th amendment?
Who wrote the letter that convinced Harry Burn to change his mind and made sure that suffrage passed by one vote?
Why is having the right to vote so important that people are willing to fight for it?
Women have had the right to vote for 100 years. What would be a good way to celebrate that historic milestone?
Watch a reenactment of the historic events that took place here in Tennessee 100 years ago on August 18.
Christopher Grisham is the K-12 Education Manager at the Tennessee State Museum.