By the spring of 1920, 35 states had ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, which would give women the right to vote. Thirty six states were required to ratify the Amendment in order for it to formally become part of the Constitution, and so all national suffrage effort that summer became intensely concentrated on winning the 36th state.
As the president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, Chattanoogan Abby Crawford Milton spent the entire month of August in Nashville lobbying members of the General Assembly to vote for suffrage.
“The battle for women’s suffrage that summer, that very hot summer of 1920, that occurred in Nashville is generally conceded to be the fiercest legislative battle that ever was waged on this continent,” she said.
Milton and a number of other state level suffragists met up locally with Carrie Chapman Catts, national president of the League of Women Voters. The suffs based their lobbying efforts from their headquarters at Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel, where the antis —anti-suffragists— had also decamped.
“The Hermitage Hotel was the scene of many fist fights and swarms of red roses in the lobby there every evening [red roses were the symbol of the antis],” said Milton. “No woman would dare venture down there. The mezzanine of that hotel had been bought up by the antis. And they served liquor there to the members, all the members they could get drunk. They took our votes away from them with all the men that they could.”
In the house, as in the Senate, a ratification resolution had been introduced on August 10. But day after day passed; the House took no action. On August 17, the committee on constitutional convention and amendments issued a favorable report.
Dismissing the arguments that ratification would be unconstitutional or a violation of the oath of office, the committee agreed with its Senate counterpart that it would be an honor for Tennessee to be the final state to ratify the amendment, “giving to our mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and sweethearts a precious right which they have so long been unjustly denied.”
The debate began. In an impassioned speech, House Speaker Seth Walker urged his colleagues to vote against the ratification resolution on states’ rights ground. Speaking for the suffragists, Joe Hanover of Memphis condemned the interference of anti-suffragists from other states, and denounced the tactics of Tennessee’s own anti-suffragists.
“What is a greater crime,” he demanded, “than for certain newspapers connected with the opposition to threaten you as they have been doing for the last ten days?” The debate continued for several hours, but the House adjourned without voting.
That night was a long one for suffragists. They patrolled the corridors of the Hermitage Hotel and stationed sentries at the train station to prevent the untimely departure of any of the men still pledged to support them. They met in Carrie Chapman Catt’s room for yet another strategy session.
But even she had exhausted her political resources. “There is one more thing we can do—only one,” she said. “We can pray.” After all the careful organization, the years of winning over public opinion, the arduous task of wooing legislators, the women were still left to pray while the men voted.
The galleries were packed when House Speaker Walker called the session to order on August 18. The atmosphere was tense; both sides knew the vote was too close to call. An anti-suffragist motion to table the ratification resolution ended in a tie. The roll call began. There were two votes for, followed by four against. The seventh name on the list was Harry Burn. At twenty-four, he was the youngest man in the legislature, a Republican from McMinn County. Suffrage polls listed him as undecided. He had voted with the antis on the motion to table.
Although Burn had promised suffrage leaders he would vote with them if they needed his vote to ratify, suffragists feared he would continue to side with the antis. They knew that political leaders in his home district opposed the Nineteenth Amendment. But they did not know that in his pocket was a letter from his mother telling him to ‘be a good boy’ and vote for ratification. When his name was called, Harry Burn voted yes.
It took a few moments for the suffragists to absorb what had happened, but before the roll call was over they realized that Harry Burn had given them the last vote they needed. The antis realized it too.
As soon as the clerk announced the vote—49 to 47—Seth Walker changed his vote from ‘no’ to ‘aye,’ and introduced a motion to reconsider. (Under House rules, only a representative voting with the winning side could move to reconsider.) That parliamentary maneuver did not diminish the suffragists’ joy. “Emancipated at last!” some exclaimed. That night, Carrie Chapman Catt sent a telegram to North Carolina suffragist Gertrude Weil: “The thirty-sixth state is won.”
“It seemed too dramatic to happen in real life, but this was the real thrill of history-making, not the excitement of stage or movies,” said Abby Milton. “Personally, I had rather have had a share in the battle for woman suffrage than any other world event. Those who stood apart from it should feel like mummies. The woman suffragists have had the thrill, the victory in the struggle for liberty, that our ancestors had at the Declaration of Independence. It is the purest American patriotism.”
sources: “‘Powers That Pray’ and ‘Powers That Prey’: Tennessee and the Fight for Woman Suffrage,” by Anastatia Sims, Tennessee Historical Quarterly 50 (1991)
“Tennessee Women and the Vote: Tennessee’s Pivotal Role in the Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment,” by Carole Bucy (written in 1995 for the 75th Anniversary of the Ratification of the 19th Amendment)