Smith: Tennessee suffrage at home and abroad

Smith: Tennessee suffrage at home and abroad

August 15th, 2013 by By Callie Smith in Opinion Columns

The post office is the last place you would expect to have an epiphany. But there it was, staring me right in the face, in the form of a bleary-eyed, disgruntled Chinese postal worker.

You've all been there, standing in line at the post office, waiting to send a package or letter in typical humdrum fashion. But this particular time was different. I stood there in Kaifeng, China, back in November, absentee ballot clutched tightly in hand, ready to vote for the next American president, when inexplicably the whispers of history lessons past surfaced in the present.

Passing my ballot into the postal worker's busy hands-- hands which likely had never held a ballot of their own-- I imagined the suffragist voices which had once resonated so loudly through Tennessee. I thought of Nashville caught in the throes of a revolution between yellow rose and red during the War of the Roses. Finally, I recalled those women who had so passionately demanded a voice -- a voice that had yet to be given to this postal worker or his co-patriots.

In that moment in China, I stood among people who rarely, if ever, had a voice in their government, yet they were the very ones who would help carry my voice and my vote back to Chattanooga. It was irony in a most tragic form. I had never felt their loss, nor my gain, so dearly. Never had our suffrage history been so alive and so significant.

As with most young women in their 20s, I grew up learning about Tennessee's role in the legendary battle for women's suffrage. I read picture books, watched documentaries and listened to lectures dedicated to the historic showdown at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville where suffragists and anti-suffragists alike had gathered in the wake of the 19th Amendment.

I am proud that my home state ultimately became the heart of the suffragist movement when on August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to support, and therefore ratify, the 19th Amendment. We had helped legalize the female vote and set the national standard that: "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" (as stated in the 19th Amendment).

It had all come down to one state, and then to one man: Harry Burn, the 24-year-old Tennessee state legislator whose vote turned the tides in the suffragists' favor. But perhaps I should say it had all come down to one woman, for Harry Burn had intended to vote against the amendment only to change his mind at the last minute after receiving a note from his mother Phoebe (Febb) Burn: "Dear Son: Hurrah and vote for suffrage! Don't keep them in doubt! I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don't forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. [Carrie Chapman] Catt put the 'rat' in ratification. Your mother."

As a 22-year-old Tennessean native, and a woman to boot, our state's legacy has always been impressive, but it has rarely impressed me more so than in that post office in the middle of rural China. It took standing among a muzzled people and putting my ballot into hands that seemed bound in spirit for me to realize the significance of my own voice and the significance of Tennessee's controversial decision in 1920. Suffrage will never again look the same.

Callie Smith, a 2012 graduate of Lee University and a 2009 graduate of Girls Preparatory School, worked on faculty at Henan Univeristy in Kaifeng, China.