It was August 1920. In world news, Ethelda Bleibtrey became the first woman to medal at the Olympics setting the women’s 100-meter freestyle world record in swimming.

In the U.S. — just 48 states at the time — the first commercial radio station began daily broadcast in Detroit, as newspapers were the near-exclusive method of mass media of the day.

TV was not yet available.  Sirloin steak cost about 48 cents a pound, milk was 17 cents a quart and gasoline was about 30 cents a gallon to fuel the Model T Ford, invented just 12 years earlier.

And, women were given the right to vote in federal and presidential elections via the 19th Amendment.

This month, Tennessee launches the centennial celebration of a year to learn and appreciate the history and civic value of woman suffrage and our state’s pivotal role, cast on the canvas of appreciation of the value of mass communication in this achievement.

Why August and why Tennessee?

Back in June 1919, the key legislative domino fell in the nation’s capital that put into motion a months-long battle with suffragists and anti-suffragists mobilizing a state-by-state movement to ratify the amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as required by law, to add this simple language:

“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 ….”

Thirty-six of the 48 United States now would each need to ratify the amendment to make it the law of the land.

The woman suffrage effort started back in 1848 at a convention held in Seneca Falls, N.Y., hosting about 300 women.

It was quite a feat with the newspapers of the day, letters and word of mouth serving as the operational method for communications!

Two national organizations were formed after the ravages of the Civil War to fight for woman suffrage.

The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) worked the halls of the U.S. Congress with its key figureheads, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

The American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Lucy Stone lobbied state legislatures to pass laws permitting women to vote.

These organizations’ original goal was that woman suffrage be included in the Reconstruction Amendments (the 13th, 14th and 15th) that established a protection of voting regardless of race, color or previous status of servitude.

Just as today, political cartoons and opinions were written, submitted and published in efforts to make a public point for or against the woman’s right to vote, most often from a reasoned stance.

Yet, some dared sensational arguments that even equated women having a voice with the disruption of the home.

By March 1920, 35 states had voted to support universal woman suffrage, and only one more was needed for national ratification.

Understanding that Tennessee was the last, best hope, our state became the epicenter of the suffrage movement, with newspapers blaring the headlines of the drama ahead.

Gov. Albert H. Roberts called a special session of the Tennessee General Assembly as suffragists and the “antis” descended on Nashville in the heat of August 1920.

Both groups set up headquarters at the Hermitage Hotel, a popular gathering place just a block from the Capitol, to intensify their lobbying efforts of a divided House, after the Tennessee Senate easily passed the ratification resolution.

A tool for vote-counting was either red or yellow-rose boutonnieres worn by legislators. Red signaled opposition while yellow stood for the woman vote.

Roses and reporters were key elements of the day, but a handwritten letter from a mother forever left a mark.

On Aug. 18, 1920, suffragists and anti-suffragists packed the public galleries in the House chamber.

The atmosphere was tense as House Speaker Seth Walker of Lebanon led the “antis,” with Joseph Hanover of Memphis the politician leading for women.

Walker unsuccessfully attempted to table the amendment, which would have effectively “killed” the bill. The vote was tied, with a second vote called to move the resolution.

The youngest House member, 24-year-old Harry Burn of Niota, faced an internal dilemma. His coat pocket held a seven-page letter from Febb Burn, Harry’s mother.

Febb had read the speeches given in the General Assembly in her local newspaper, and she was mad.

Among general news of the family farm, Febb used the letter to persuade her son to change his anti-suffrage stance, writing “hurrah and vote for suffrage!”

Sporting a red anti-suffrage rose, Burn shocked the chamber by declaring “aye” for the amendment, thus breaking a tie and changing the course of history.

While America attentively watched, well, actually read through their newspapers, activist efforts of the anti-suffragists to reverse the vote failed.

Using parliamentary and procedural moves, 30 Tennessee legislators left the state, fleeing to Alabama, as reported on Aug. 21, 1920, by the Philadelphia Evening Ledger.

The Norwich Ledger of Connecticut noted the attempts to overturn the votes in the Tennessee House.

But the Santa Fe New Mexican ran the banner headline, “Women will vote in next presidential election in November; Tennessee 36th and final state to ratify Susan B. Anthony Amendment.”

On Aug. 24, 1920, Gov. Roberts certified Tennessee’s ratification and, two days later, U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby officially certified it, and the 19th Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution.

Tennessee provided the 36th and final state needed to ratify this landmark amendment to the U.S. Constitution, earning itself the nickname “The Perfect 36.”

Tennessee had given 27 million women the right to vote.

All of this history is thanks to motivated individuals using the tools of the day, primarily the written word and their own energy, to forever change history.

While much has changed, much remains the same.


ROBIN SMITH, R-Hixson, represents part of Hamilton County in the Tennessee House of Representatives. She wrote this in conjunction with the Official Committee on the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Centennial. The Tennessee Press Association, of which The Post-Intelligencer is a member, will celebrate its 150th anniversary, also in 2020.

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