Women's Suffrage in Tennessee

Imagine being born into a country where you were denied the right to vote just because you were a woman.

That was primarily the situation for most American women prior to August 18, 1920, when Tennessee became the last state that could possibly ratify the 19th Amendment. The 72-year struggle for women to become enfranchised became a reality with Tennessee’s action which enshrined their right to vote in all elections in the U.S. Constitution.

How Tennessee Helped Ratify the 19th Amendment

Tennessee played a pivotal role in gaining the right to vote for women. By March of 1920, 35 states had ratified the 19th amendment, one state shy of the three-quarters required for national ratification. The State of Tennessee provided the critical vote, based on the urging of a McMinn County mother to her son, Harry T. Burn, a member of the Tennessee General Assembly. Burn’s vote is credited with positioning Tennessee as the deciding state supporting the change to the U.S. Constitution.

We proudly state that all American women vote today thanks to Tennessee.

August 18, 2020 will mark the 100th Anniversary of the 19th amendment.

East Tennessee will celebrate with a variety of events, most still to be announced.

 

Don't Miss this Upcoming Event!

 

See the pivotal letter from Febb Burns to her son at East Tennessee History Center

Letter from Febb Burn to her son Harry Burn in support of women’s suffrage

 

History of Women's Suffrage

Suffragists had to win in no fewer than 36 legislatures, while their opponents, the entrenched and well-heeled Antis, could kill the amendment by squashing it in just 13 legislatures. Behind the Antis’ formally organized battalions — a National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (for ladies) and the American Constitutional League (for gentlemen) — stood the suffragists’ real and most powerful enemies, a shadowy conglomerate of special interests referred to as the whiskey ring, the railroad trust, and the manufacturers’ lobby.

After passage in Congress on June 4, 1919, there were 34 state ratifications from June 10, 1919, until March 10, 1920. On March 22, 1920, the Washington state legislature was called into special session and unanimously completed ratification number 35. Where was number 36? With final victory so amazingly and tantalizingly close, the ratification campaign stalled. Six states, all Southern, had already rejected the amendment. Only seven states had not yet acted, and three of these – Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina – were also from the Deep and Democratic South. No chance there where memories of federally-controlled elections during the dark days of Reconstruction still rankled, and the 19th Amendment, with its Section 2 granting enforcement powers to Congress, was anathema. There was no hope in Connecticut or Vermont.

It fell to Tennessee, a border state with well-organized pro-suffrage groups – National American Woman Suffrage Association and National Woman’s Party stalwarts — and anti-suffrage factions, to become “The Perfect 36.” The reluctant governor, A.H. Roberts, conveniently called a special session for August 9, 1920, after his party primary. After extensive heated debate and parliamentary maneuverings, the state Senate concurred 25-4. The House vote was a cliffhanger. It passed 50-46 on August 18, 1920 and survived constitutional challenges so that Tennessee’s ratification made votes for women the law of the land.

 

 

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