Tomorrow, Aug. 18, 2015, marks the 95th anniversary of Tennessee's pivotal role in recognizing women's right to vote in America. Following the constitutional process that mandates two-thirds of the state's legislatures pass supporting legislation, Tennessee became "Perfect 36" after decades of work and pure determination that began in 1848.
It wasn't until 1878 that the constitutional amendment was introduced in the U.S. Congress under the leadership of Susan B. Anthony, with both congressional chambers passing with super-majorities the 19th Amendment in 1919 that simply reads: "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."
By the spring of 1920, only seven state legislatures remained that had not voted for passage or defeat of the critical suffrage legislation. Employing rudimentary observations characteristic of the early 20th century, the only remaining hope to achieve the "Perfect 36" states required to ratify the U.S. Constitution rested with Tennessee.
Despite a bill passed only a year earlier by Tennessee's General Assembly permitting women to vote in both local and presidential elections, the incumbent Gov. Albert H. Roberts had "spoken against woman suffrage" in his campaign. Yet, understanding political pressure, Roberts reluctantly called a special session of the legislative body into order on Aug. 9, 1920.
While the gentlemen convened, deliberated and debated in our state's capitol, women from both the suffrage and anti-suffragist movements set up their respective headquarters to lobby and whip up votes only a block away in the historic Hermitage Hotel that sits as a monument today at the corner of Sixth and Union avenues.
The Hermitage Hotel, with its frequented watering hole that earned the moniker "the Third House" of the Tennessee General Assembly, was the only common ground shared by these conflicting warriors. And, part of winning is the art of counting votes and count they did with the aid of roses.
As the humid heat of August held its veil over Nashville, yellow and red roses were distributed by the suffragists and "antis," respectively. Tennessee legislators were casting their vote by the color of the rose that adorned their lapels — red opposing the women's right to vote, yellow supporting the same; hence the oft-cited remembrance of the War of the Roses.
The Tennessee Senate passed the proposal with ease on Friday, Aug. 13 — proving to be a lucky Friday the 13th. However, after failed parliamentary tricks and an abstaining House speaker on a motion to table the resolution, movement stalled in the Tennessee House with a tie vote at 48-48 on two separate occasions.
On Wednesday, Aug. 18, 1920, with 96 of the total 99 state House members present, House Speaker Seth Walker believed enough votes remained to kill the suffrage bill. Unbeknownst to the legislative leader and the other "antis," a 24-year-old representative from Niota had received a seven-page letter from his mom, Phoebe Burn, or Miss Febb. In her writing, the East Tennessee Republican's mom declared, "Hurrah, and vote for suffrage!"
Donning his red rose, the young man voted with all the other yellow roses of Tennessee and forever changed the history of America and the Volunteer State.
As a mom of a 24-year-old professional, I cherish the notion of the power of mothers. Yet, most importantly, I value the courage of a 24-year-old in 1920 who made it possible for our 24-year-old-daughter and all other women to voice their views through the power of the vote.
Robin Smith, a former chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party, is the owner of Rivers Edge Alliance.