The war of the roses

Many people associate the term "War of the Roses" with a late 1980's movie focused on the no-holds-barred battle of divorce of a couple with the last name Rose.

However, greater attention should be paid to Tennessee's War of the Roses, which took place 92 years ago today. After all, it changed history for women.

The battle fought in Tennessee yielded the 36th and final state needed to ratify the U.S. Constitution to include 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."

The effort to recognize women's voting rights was birthed in 1848 at a convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and the initial Constitutional Amendment written by Susan B. Anthony to achieve voting rights for women was introduced into Congress in 1878. But not until 1919 was Anthony's women's suffrage amendment passed in both the U.S. House and Senate with the necessary super-majority to send it to the states for adoption.

The cascade of events then flowed to the state legislatures to fulfill the Constitutional requirement of three-fourths of the states voting their approval.

Carrying on the work of Susan B. Anthony, who died in 1906, Carrie Chapman Catt and her growing army of Suffragists mobilized in state legislatures, becoming citizen activists. Following months of determined activity, Tennessee stepped into the spotlight as more than 70 suffragists groups in the Volunteer State began applying pressure to its governor, Albert H. Roberts, to call a special session of the General Assembly. Washington State had just become the 35th state of the needed 36 to call for the Constitutional Amendment through ratification. Only one more was needed.

After much reluctance, Gov. Roberts, considered an "anti" or anti-suffragist, navigated around his fear of political defeat at the ballot box. A special legislative session would convene on August 9, 1920 -- conveniently, four days after Roberts won re-election.

The 1920 summer clash in Nashville turned one of the General Assembly's favorite watering holes (then and now), the Hermitage Hotel, into the headquarters of both the Suffragists and the anti-Suffragists. It also created the War of the Roses.

In efforts to display community support, but more importantly, to identify their friends and foes, the anti-Suffragists distributed red roses to those opposing the ratification and the Suffragists distributed yellow roses to those supporting the women's right to vote legislation.

The Tennessee Senate swiftly voted to support women's suffrage on Friday, August 13, 1920. In contrast, the House worked through parliamentary maneuvers and motions to table the legislation with emotions and tempers growing more and more heated. The rose count reflected on the lapels of the state House members revealed a 48-vote deadlock of the 96 lawmakers present.

Finally, believing he had the votes needed to defeat the suffrage legislation, Speaker Seth Walker put the resolution to its final vote on Wednesday, August 18, 1920. The drama concluded as Harry Burn, a young man from Niota, in McMinn County, donning a red rose on his lapel, changed his mind and shouted "Aye!" to a stunned crowd.

The 24-year-old Republican from rural East Tennessee broke the 48-48 vote stalemate and, in the process, changed history -- not just for our state, but for the nation.

The angry "antis" began chasing the young legislator around the gallery until the escaped through a 3rd-floor window to a ledge, which led to the Capitol's attic. There he hid until the furious crowd finally ended their pursuit.

Unbeknownst to all at the time, the House vote -- and American history -- changed because of a seven-page letter Burn had received from his mother, Phoebe Burn.

The letter, comprised mostly of updates of daily life, included a short declaration, which read: "Hurrah, and vote for suffrage!" The War of the Roses and the 72-year battle fought to provide women the right to vote was ultimately decided by a letter from a mother to her son.

Tennessee's role in the history of women's rights is too infrequently discussed and appreciated. On this 92nd anniversary of that monumental vote, all women -- and all Americans -- should join in remembering the War of the Roses in Tennessee.