The NCSL Blog


By Julie Lays

Nashville—The Women's Legislative Network continued its celebration commemorating the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment Tuesday at a jam-packed luncheon session at the Legislative Summit.

Paula Casey, co-founder of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail, and Brenda Harper, with the 2020 Vision Suffrage Commemoration, shared Tennessee's history as the 36th and final state to ratify the amendment and introduced participants to the women who worked tirelessly for voting rights.

In 1920, Tennessee became that deciding 36th state, but not without some drama.

The Tennessee Senate passed the amendment easily, but it stalled in the House. Thousands of pro- and anti-suffrage activists filled Nashville to voice their opinions. Tension was high and debates were fierce.

Many lawmakers chose to show which side they were on by the color of the rose in their lapel. Red signified they were against giving women the right to vote. Yellow reflected support. After, a motion to table the amendment was defeated with a 48-48 tie. With an evenly divided House, it looked like Tennessee was not going to be the final state needed to get the amendment adopted, so the speaker called for a ratification vote on Aug. 18, 1920.

But Representative Harry Burn had a surprise that would make history. At 24, he was one of the youngest Tennessee legislators, and was a red rose wearer, signifying he was against ratifying the 19th Amendment. But a note he received from his mother on the morning of the vote proved providential.

Phoebe Ensminger Burn had written to her son, “…vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt.” She ended by imploring her son to “be a good boy” and help the suffragist movement.

When it was his turn to vote, holding his mother’s letter in one hand and still wearing his red rose, Burn stunned his fellow legislators with a quick, “aye.”

After Burns came out of hiding several hours later, he told his fellow lawmakers, “I believe we had a moral and lsegal right to ratify. … I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

With his vote, Burn enabled the 19th Amendment to become law, half a century after suffragists began their campaign.

The session ended on a high note listening to a recording of Dolly Parton’s song “19th Amendment.”

Julie Lays is editor of State Legislatures magazine.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.