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The Nineteenth Amendment & the War of the Roses


Historic marker in downtown Nashville outside the Hermitage Hotel commemorates the ratification victory of the Suffragists on Aug. 18, 1920 in winning the vote for the 19th amendment.

Nashville, Tennessee August 18, 1920

In the hot and muggy month of August 1920, a national drama brought its final and perhaps most spectacular act to Nashville. A year before on June 4, 1919, the U.S. Congress had voted to append thirty-nine words to the Constitution. Simple, straightforward words, but for all their brevity, they packed a punch. Nearly everyone who read them, or even heard about them, felt provoked to take a stand. Those thirty-nine words comprised the Nineteenth Amendment which, if ratified by thirty-six states, would give women the right to vote.

By August 1920, when the issue was to come before the Tennessee State Legislature, the amendment was one state shy of ratification. Thirty-five states had passed it. Despite the mere sliver of a margin that blocked ratification, the Suffragists and their supporters knew victory was not inevitable. Indeed, the Anti-Suffragists had good reason to hope that if Tennessee failed to pass the Nineteenth Amendment, the "Perfect Thirty-Six" would never be realized and the law would die. What ensued was a "war of the roses," with its primary battle waged in Nashville during an oppressively hot August.

The town teemed with reporters from New York, Chicago, Washington, and Boston. Celebrities such as the national suffrage leader, Carrie Chapman Catt, traveled to Nashville to help spearhead the drive for ratification. She joined forces with one of the prominent Tennessee leaders, Anne Dallas Dudley, in organizing a strenuous female advocacy. Tennessee women from rural and urban backgrounds, different social classes, and different races worked together in writing letters, making speeches, and canvassing legislators. Despite their diversity, they were united under a single symbol: the yellow rose. Yellow roses, in fact, were in vogue in Nashville that summer. But so were red roses--the flower of choice for the Anti-Suffragists. Even the legislators "showed their colors" by wearing roses on their lapels.

Counting the number of red roses worn by the representatives, the Suffragists knew they were in trouble for the pending vote on August 18. By the roses, it appeared the amendment would be defeated 47 for and 49 against. In the first roll call, however, Rep. Banks Turner came over to the Suffragist's side and the vote was deadlocked at 48 for and 48 against. The second roll was taken and the vote remained 48 to 48.

With wilted collars and frayed nerves, the legislators squared off for the third roll call. A blatant red rose on his breast, Harry Burn--the youngest member of the legislature--suddenly broke the deadlock. Despite his red rose, he voted in favor of the bill and the house erupted into pandemonium. With his "yea," Burn had delivered universal suffrage to all American women. The outraged opponents to the bill began chasing Representative Burn around the room. In order to escape the angry mob, Burn climbed out one of the third-floor windows of the Capitol. Making his way along a ledge, he was able to save himself by hiding in the Capitol attic.

When tempers had cooled, Burn was asked to explain the red rose on his lapel and his "yellow-rose" vote. He responded that while it was true he was wearing a red rose, what people couldn't see was that his breast pocket contained a telegram from his mother in East Tennessee. She urged him to do the right thing and vote in favor of the amendment. Governor A. H. Roberts signed the bill on August 24, 1920 and two days later, the Nineteenth Amendment became national law. One hundred and forty-four years after the Declaration of Independence, American women had earned the constitutional right to vote--thanks in large part to a woman named Febb Ensminger Burn and her son, Harry.

by Cheryl Hiers, BlueShoe Nashville

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