A dramatic battle in the Tennessee House of Representatives ends with the state ratifying the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution on August 18, 1920. After decades of struggle and protest by suffragettes across the country, the decisive vote is cast by a 24-year-old representative who reputedly changed his vote after receiving a note from his mother.
When Carrie Chapman Catt took over from Anthony as President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1900, she prioritized the push for a constitutional amendment to give women the vote. At the outset of World War I, NAWSA urged women to prove their worth to the war effort while the National Women’s Party, led by Lucy Burns and Alice Paul, engaged in civil disobedience, directly targeting President Woodrow Wilson with protests outside the White House. Finally, facing growing pressure on multiple fronts, Wilson called a special session of congress in May of 1919 and personally appealed for women’s suffrage. Having voted down the amendment six times, Congress finally approved it, sending it to the states for ratification.
By March of 1920, just one more state needed to ratify the 19 Amendment in order for it to become law. The Tennessee General Assembly took up the question in August, and suffragists and anti-suffragist bore down on Nashville. The State Senate voted convincingly to ratify, but the House failed to do so twice, by two votes of 48 to 48. State Rep. Harry T. Burn, a 24-year-old from McMinn County, was one of the “nay” votes. Reportedly, he had intended to vote for ratification but had been persuaded not to by telegrams from his constituents and members of his party. Just as a third vote was set to begin, Burn received a letter from his mother, Febb Ensminger Burn, that read, in part, “Hurrah and vote for Suffrage and don't keep them in doubt … I've been watching to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet ... Don't forget to be a good boy.” On the third vote, Burns changed his mind. Thanks to his single vote, the House approved the amendment, Tennessee ratified it, and the Constitution was changed to guarantee women the right to vote.