published Monday, August 18th, 2014

Smith: Tennessee final cog in women's voting rights

By Robin Smith

In 1919, the U.S. Congress voted to add these 39 words to the U.S. Constitution in the form of the 19th Amendment:

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

"Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

The states then moved the legislation through their legislative bodies as both sides, arguing for and against passage, lobbied their wishes. Passage occurred first in Wisconsin, then Illinois, Michigan, Texas, Kentucky and Wyoming, and the 35th state passing legislation permitting women to vote was Washington.

By the spring of 1920, legislation had failed in six states, with seven remaining. Based on the sentiments of legislators, the only remaining hope to achieve the "Perfect Thirty-Six" states required to ratify the U.S. Constitution rested with Delaware and Tennessee.

Unexpectedly, the Delaware state legislature defeated the necessary bill to move to constitutional ratification.

Tennessee became the epicenter of national politics and policy.

The Tennessee General Assembly just a year earlier passed a bill to permit women to vote in local and presidential elections. Yet, doubt lingered that the amendment for full voting rights would be supported in the Volunteer State with a governor who had, according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia, "spoken against woman suffrage" during his campaign.

After Tennessee's Gov. Albert H. Roberts reluctantly called a special session during his re-election year, women descended on Nashville, staking out their logistical headquarters for persuasion. Both the anti-suffragists and the suffragists supporting the women's vote shared common physical ground, the Hermitage Hotel.

The hotel, which opened in 1910 and is still standing at Union and Sixth Avenue, is historic not only because of its gilded architecture and painted glass ceiling but because of its role in providing access to the Tennessee legislators who passed by its veranda or convened in today's Capitol Grille, just two blocks from Tennessee's Capitol.

Learning the key to impacting policy was winning votes, the ladies distributed roses to adorn the lapels of legislators to correspond with their stance: red roses worn by legislators supporting the anti-suffragist position and yellow roses worn by those supporting women's suffrage.

The special session was called to order on Aug. 9, 1920. The suffrage vote occurred first in the Senate chamber, passing with ease. But two 48-48 tie votes in the House on a motion to table the resolution, with the speaker abstaining knowing a draw would halt the forward progress of the bill, created the atmosphere of high drama.

The boutonnieres of red and yellow held firm until a 24-year-old Republican from McMinn County made history.

Despite his two votes validating the red rose on his lapel against the women's vote, Harry Burn had a change of heart.

A note from his mom, Phoebe "Miss Febb" Burn, began, "Hurrah, and vote for suffrage!" Her heart changed his.

Burn's next vote, "aye," matched his mother's admonition but clashed with his previous stance and red rose. The packed gallery of the House chamber erupted.

Anger by the anti-suffragists ensued. Burn ran from his earlier supporters, finding an escape via a third-floor window that allowed him to hide in the Capitol attic until hot tempers began to cool.

Tennessee was "Perfect Thirty-Six" in its legislative role to ratify the amendment, giving women the right to vote nationally on Aug. 18, 1920.

Ninety-four years later, let's celebrate Tennessee's leadership.

Robin Smith, immediate past Tennessee Republican Party chairwoman, is owner of Rivers Edge Alliance.

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