Editor’s Note: This blog was written and submitted by Vision 2020 Tennessee Delegate Patricia Pierce.
Tennessee played a pivotal role in the passage of the 19th Amendment—or the so called “Susan B. Anthony Amendment.” Tennessee was the suffragist’s last hope of getting a thirty-sixth state in time for women to vote in the 1920 presidential election. It all happened in Nashville over a three week span of a special called session of the state legislature. “The Perfect 36” caption was given to Tennessee by commentators and cartoonists of the day when on August 24, 1920 Tennessee became the 36th state needed to complete ratification by three-quarters of the then 48 states. It also marked the climax of 72 years of tireless campaigning by four generations of dedicated American women. In my opinion and many others it is something for which Tennessee is proud of.
The resolution for ratification passed without much difficulty in the Tennessee Senate, but the struggle in the House was very dramatic with one side and then the other claiming to have the majority of votes. A young, first term representative from McMinn County, Harry T. Burn, while wearing the red rose, a symbol of the anti-suffrage group, in his lapel changed his vote to make ratification possible. Harry’s mother, Febb Ensminger Burn was a widowed, land-owning, non-voting taxpayer from Niota, TN who knew women’s suffrage was important. She wrote a letter to her son that he gives credit for his vote change from “nay” to “yea.” She told him to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the “rat” in ratification. Even when the vote on August 18th was 49 in favor to 47 against, a motion was made to reconsider the vote held the decision up for three days. The motion failed on August 21st, but the Speaker of the House announced an injunction by one of the judges of the Tennessee Supreme Court had been issued against forwarding the certificate of ratification to Washington. The suffragists spent two days getting the injunction dissolved, and on August 24th the certificate was signed by the Governor and sent on its way to Washington.
At four a.m. on the morning of August 26, the certificate reached Washington and the Secretary of State’s signature made it official! Finally, the enactment of the 19th Amendment marked the moment of enfranchisement for one-half of the adult population of the United States. The words of President Wilson’s war message on April 2, 1917 had finally come true, “we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts-for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their government.” Celebrate the 93nd anniversary of women’s right to vote this year. Voting is a precious privilege to all, and we should exercise our vote at every opportunity!