August Dates in Women's History
by Susan G. Butruille
Some called it the War of the Roses. Hundreds of women and men had gathered in the Tennessee Statehouse on August 18, 1920 to witness the legislative vote that would determine whether or not women across the country would have voting rights. Women's suffrage now depended on Tennessee. Congress had passed the amendment, and ratification required 36 states. Tennessee would be number 36.
The room was a sea of yellow roses worn by suffragists and red roses worn by antis. Tennessee was deadlocked, and the speaker had called for a third roll call vote. Harry Burn, the youngest legislator, wore a red rose as he stood to vote, glancing at a paper in his hand - a letter from his mother. It ended with "be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the 'rat' in ratification." Harry Burn voted - yes.
And, it changed everything. Harry Burn's "Yes" meant that women across the country could vote - just like men! After a momentary shocked silence, a riot broke out. According to legend, the anti-suffrage legislators chased Harry Burn out of the chambers, forcing him to hide. Shocked and furious foes convened a grand jury to charge Harry with bribery. The governor's wife called the letter a "fraud" and demanded that Harry's mother recant the letter. She refused.
Young Harry Burn had voted with the anti-suffragists before getting the letter from his mother, Phoebe (Febb) Ensminger Burn, a well-read college-educated teacher and landowner. Harry explained his change of heart. He thought about the fact that his college-educated mother couldn't vote, while any man could, regardless of education. "I knew that a mother's advice is always safest for a boy to follow," he said, and that "an opportunity seldom comes to a mortal man to free 17 million women from political slavery."
The "Mrs. Catt" in Febb Burn's letter was Carrie Chapman Catt, the general of the later years of the 72-year suffrage campaign. Catt, along with many others, marched legislation through Congress and convinced a resistant President Woodrow Wilson to support the suffrage amendment. On August 26, 1920, U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, freeing women across the country to vote.
A statue of Harry and Febb Burn, dedicated in 2018 and sponsored largely by the Suffrage Coalition, now stands in Knoxville, Tennessee's Market Square.
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