Opinion | Civil Rights

Which lady was behind the deciding vote for women's suffrage 100 years ago?

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One hundred years ago on Aug. 18, 1920, a young Tennessee legislator cast the deciding vote that made women's voting rights a national reality. When Harry T. Burn changed his vote and broke the tie that ratified the 19th Amendment, he said a particular lady influenced him. Who was she?

Did Burn remember Abigail Adams, who took initiative and asked her husband John Adams to remember the ladies when making a new code for America in 1776?

"If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation," Abigail predicted.

Did Burn think of the vision of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who claimed the Declaration of Independence for women and called for women's voting rights in 1848? "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal," Stanton published in the Declaration of Sentiments.

Did he think of the persevering faith of Sojourner Truth, a former slave who used her powerful voice to call for the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage? "Why children, if you have woman's rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won't be so much trouble," Sojourner said.

Did Burn recall the steadfast spirit of Susan B. Anthony, who fought for a constitutional amendment for women's right to vote until the day she died? 

"We respectfully and earnestly pray that, in restoring the foundations of our nationality, all discriminations on account of sex or race may be removed; and that our government may be republican in fact as well as form; A government by the people, and the whole people, for the people and the whole people," Anthony proclaimed.

Did he recall the patriotic, historic image of Columbia, the personification of America depicted in Washington D.C.'s 1913 women's suffrage parade? "Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the scales, for in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails." Did he think of the resilience on parade of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who broke the color barrier? "All eyes were turned on Ida B. Wells, for it was she, herself a victim of the portrayed outrages and . . . she shone with intellectual brilliancy."

Did he think of Inez Milholland, who called for voting out congressmen who opposed women's suffrage in the 1916 election? "The dominant political party-the Democratic Party-has the power to liberate the women of the United States, but they have refused to exercise that power on our behalf, and on behalf of justice and of freedom."

Did he remember the courageous creativity of Alice Paul's Silent Sentinels, who held signs outside of President Wilson's White House: "Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?"

Did he remember Lucy Burns, who endured the night of terror in jail, which became the emotional turning point that finally convinced Congress to take the 19th Amendment seriously? "Miss Lucy Burns declared the suffrage question was the only one before Congress today when President Wilson finished reading his address."

Unrelated to Lucy, how would Harry Burn vote after Congress passed the 19th Amendment, sent it the states for ratification, and the final vote came down to his home state, Tennessee?

Few in the packed gallery were surprised that he wore an oppositional red rose instead of a supportive yellow rose when he walked into the Tennessee house chamber on August 18, 1920. After all, his political mentor had bitterly spoken against suffrage and many expected Burn to do the same. "The majority of my constituency demands that I vote against ratification," Burn said.

A procedural vote resulted in a tie, convincing the house speaker that the amendment would fail. So he called for a vote on the amendment's merits. Removing his lapel's red rose, Burn broke the tie with an "aye." 

Pandemonium broke into the chamber. Like graduates tossing their caps into the air, suffragists in the gallery tossed yellow roses, screamed, sang and danced.

"Burn hailed as hero of the hour," the "Chattanooga News" reported. Burn released an explanation. "First, I believe in full suffrage as a right. Second, I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify."

Then he revealed which lady had influenced him to change his mind. Did he remember Stanton, Anthony, Truth, Wells-Barnett, Milholland or Paul? No but their efforts led him to see the injustice his mother faced. 

"Third, I know that a mother's advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification," he said, reflecting on his mother's letter that he'd received the morning of the vote. She'd encouraged him to vote for suffrage after hearing of his political mentor's opposition. Burn wanted his mother to have the right to vote like her employees.

"Fourth, I appreciated the fact that an opportunity such as seldom comes to moral man-to free American women from political slavery-was mine. Fifth, I desire that my party, and both state and nation, might say that it was a Republican from the mountains of Tennessee."

The news spread instantly. "Followed his mother's advice," the "Seattle Daily Times" published. "Mother proud of son who cast deciding vote for suffrage," the "New York Daily Tribune" reported. "The women of the nation who will be enabled to vote this November by Tennessee's ratification of the 19th Amendment may thank Harry Burn's mother for their enfranchisement," the "Chattanooga News" concluded.

The story ended where it started-in a family relationship. Burn did what Abigail Adams wanted her husband to do in 1776. This unmarried 23-year-old remembered the ladies by remembering the most important lady to him: his mother. 

Celebrating the 19th Amendment's 100th anniversary is about remembering all who battled for the vote so women can vote today.

Jane Hampton Cook a former White House webmaster for President George W. Bush and the author of "Resilience on Parade: Short Stories of Suffragists & Women's Battle of the Vote."

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