Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Listen to your mother (there will be a women's suffrage quiz)

August 18, 2011 by Jenna Winterle Kehres


“Be good.”  This short little phrase is a simple reminder that most of us have heard countless times from our mothers.  This advice is usually uttered along with other classics like “Mind your manners,” “Say please and thank you,” and “Chew with your mouth closed!”  Sometimes it seems that no matter how old we get, our mothers will always be there, dispensing these timeless words of wisdom.  And while at times we may want to grit our teeth and deliver a flip “I KNOW MOM,” it’s hard to be really upset.

Suffrage parade, New York City, May 6, 1912. Photo From Wikimedia Commons

These somewhat intrusive but ultimately benign motherly pieces of advice usually help us all become better, more productive members of society.  And hey, you never know – occasional reminders to “be good” may even have the power to change history…

Ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment

The summer of 1920 was a pivotal time in America.  An amendment granting women the right to vote had been passed by Congress and ratified by thirty-five states, one state shy of the three quarters that were required to add the amendment to the Constitution.

The next state to consider the Amendment was Tennessee.  The amendment had already passed in the state’s Senate by the time it reached the Tennessee House of Representatives on August 18, 1920.  The House was bitterly divided on the issue and several anti-suffragists attempted to delay (and, in essence kill) the vote on ratification.  Twice the vote to delay resulted in a 48-48 tie, so the House was forced to cut to the chase and vote on the amendment itself.  A similar deadlock was expected, but to everyone’s astonishment, when the results came in there were forty-nine votes in favor of the amendment, and only forty-seven votes opposed.

This Pro-Suffrage Christmas Stocking is on periodic display at the Center. It is on loan from the Museum of American Political Life, University of Hartford, Hartford, CT

That historic swing vote belonged to a young member of the Assembly named Harry T. Burn.  Burn had voted with the anti-suffragists in favor of the delay, and everyone was expecting him to also vote against the amendment itself.  He might have too, had it not been for a letter that he had recently received.  Any guesses who that letter was from?

Yep, Harry’s mother, Mrs. Febb Burn, wrote to her son encouraging him to support women’s suffrage.  In her letter she also reminded him to “be a good boy.”  After receiving his mother’s advice, Burn only really had one option.  When his turn came he didn’t hesitate to vote “yes” on women’s suffrage, breaking the tie.   It was a slim victory, but it was indeed a victory.  With Tennessee’s ratification, the 19th amendment was added to the Constitution and women across the country were granted the right to vote!

Today, to celebrate the anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, take some time to remember Mrs. Febb Burn, her son Harry and all the extraordinary people who worked for the Women’s Suffrage Movement….your mother would be proud!

Jenna Winterle is the Public Programs Coordinator at the National Constitution Center.  She has proudly voted in every election since she turned eighteen and she thanks all of the great American suffragists for that incredible opportunity.

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