Help Put the ‘Rat’ In ‘Ratification’

After nearly one hundred years of arrests, protests, and debates thousands of women lined up at the polls to cast their vote during the election of 1920. The final step to receive this right seemed to be a simple one compared to the trials and tribulations the suffragists had previously faced—find 36 states to vote in favor of the ratification. During the summer of 1920, the women of the movement rallied 35 states’ support. The measure was still one vote short of the Constitution’s required 36, leaving the final vote in the hands of the state legislators of Tennessee.  

On August 7th, both supporters and those in opposition of the changes crowded the session galleries. After weeks of lobbying and several heated debates, the vote came to a 48-48 tie. The final decision was given to 24-year-old Harry Burn, the youngest state legislator. As Burn rose to cast his vote, with a red boutonniere pinned to his suit (signifying his opposition of the new amendment) a surprising change of events occurred. Harry Burn said “aye.” His change of heart shocked the entire audience — including long-time anti-suffragist lawmakers. Historians say that shortly after his decision, Burn raced to the attic of the Capitol building to avoid a both angry and confused crowd.    

Unbeknownst to the legislators, Burn’s may have cast the final vote, but was not the only decision-maker that historical day. It was not the speeches made by supporters who helped to change his mind, but a letter sent to him just days before from his mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn. In it she wrote:

“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.”

The determined mother concluded with a message from the leader of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Carrie Chapman Catt, which asked Burn to:

“…be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”

The next day following the event, Burn made a public speech to the assembly.  “I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify. I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification,” Burn stated.

Where would we be today without those suffragists and of course, Mrs. Burns and Mrs. Catt who helped Harry Burn but the ‘rat’ in ratification?

To read more on this exciting moment in American History, visit:

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