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A women’s suffrage story, part 3


October 16, 2020

On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee state legislature was considering becoming the 36th state to ratify the proposed 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote.

If Tennessee ratified the amendment, it would be added to the Constitution. The state senate had approved the provision but the state house of representatives had not. That body was meeting in Nashville in special session to vote on that one issue.

Supporters and opponents of the measure descended upon Tennessee’s capital city, Nashville, to lobby legislators to vote the way they preferred.

For their part, lawmakers donned roses in the lapels of their suits to indicate how they would vote. Supporters of suffrage wore yellow boutonnieres while opponents wore red ones.

Among those sporting a red rose was Harry Burn, a Republican from the eastern part of the state who was a freshman legislator and the youngest person in the state house of representatives.

Young Burn was 24 years old, having been elected in 1918 when he was 22. He was also running for a second term while the legislature was considering the suffrage proposal.

Burn had thought about supporting the amendment, but Republican leaders pressured him to vote “no.” Many residents in his district also urged him to oppose women’s suffrage.

When the state house of representatives voted on the amendment, the 96 lawmakers were evenly divided 48-48. A second vote produced the same 48-48 result. On the third attempt, however, Burn switched his vote and the measure passed 49-47!

Opponents of suffrage were outraged! A popular story (which was untrue) began circulating that Burn was chased out of the legislative building by an angry mob and that he had to hide out for days to keep from being beaten to death!

Legislators did, however, launch an investigation to determine if Burn had accepted a bribe to change his vote. He had not, and he was vindicated. So, why had he changed his vote? We will see next week in the final installment of this story.


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