Looking Back: 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage

“I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.” — Harry T. Burn

Did you know Tennessee played a pivotal role in the passage of the 13th Amendment?

On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee General Assembly ratified the 19th Amendment and handed the ballot to millions of American women. The amendment’s jubilant supporters dubbed Tennessee “the perfect 36” because, as the thirty-sixth of the forty-eight states to approve the amendment, it rounded out the three-fourths majority required to amend the Constitution. But it nearly didn’t happen. At least on that day.

Harry Burn, a 24-year-old representative from East Tennessee, had become the youngest member of the state legislature two years earlier. By the summer of 1920, 35 states had ratified the measure, bringing it one vote short of the required 36. In Tennessee, it had sailed through the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives, prompting thousands of pro- and anti-suffrage activists to descend upon Nashville. If Burn and his Tennessee colleagues voted in its favor, the 19th Amendment would pass the final hurdle on its way to adoption.

That morning, Harry Burn—who until that time had been very much against suffrage— surprised everyone when he voted in favor of ratifying the amendment.

What few knew at the time was that he had in his pocket a note he had received from his mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn. In it, she had written:

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

The next day, Burn publicly announced his personal support for women’s suffrage, and said, “I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify.” But he also shared his mother’s role in the story of women’s rights in the United States. “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow,” he explained, “and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

Discovery Park of America has announced several ways the museum and heritage park in Union City, Tenn. will be joining in the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Included will be a trio of temporary pop-up exhibits, an online panel discussion and a production performed by students from Discovery Park’s Historical Theater Academy.

The exhibits will be on display through Dec. 31, 2020 and are free with museum admission or membership. The exhibits are sponsored by Baptist Memorial Hospital – Union City and Conley & Conley Law Firm.

For an entire gallery of photos and artifacts documenting anti- and pro-suffrage activity in Tennessee around the passage of the 19th Amendment, visit the Tennessee Virtual Archive.

Join the conversation on a free panel discussion on Thurs., Aug. 13, 2020 at 10 a.m. on “Tennessee Women, Society and Suffrage.

Read more about the exhibits in our latest press release and Women’s Suffrage exhibit page.