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How a Letter from a Tennessee Lawmaker’s Mama Ultimately Led to Giving Women the Right to Vote

Southern Living logo Southern Living 8/18/2020 Rebecca Angel Baer
a vintage photo of a group of people standing in front of a building: Bettmann / Contributor/Getty Images © Provided by Southern Living Bettmann / Contributor/Getty Images

In the late summer of 1920, the final battle of the women’s suffrage movement played out in the state of Tennessee. Women had been fighting the war to have the right to vote for decades by this point. The official mark of the movement was the 1848 Seneca Falls convention, however ten years earlier, Sarah Grimke, of South Carolina, wrote in Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman; Addressed to Mary S. Parker, “men and women were created equal. All that I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy.” This quote you may recognize as it is oft used by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. So truly, the wheels were in motion as early as 1838, but it would take until 1920, and a tie-breaking vote in the Tennessee House of Representatives for women having the right to vote would become a reality.  

a vintage photo of a group of people standing in front of a building: August 18, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. © Bettmann / Contributor/Getty Images August 18, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads as follows:

“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.”

Congress had rejected this amendment for years before finally passing it June 4, 1919, and following this vote in Congress, 35 states then ratified it. Just one more state was needed to ensure it became the law for the entire country, and become a permanent fixture in the Constitution, NPR reported. Suffragettes turned their hopes towards the South. “Tennessee turns out to be their last best hope, the state that had any possibility of ratifying,” author Elaine Weiss told NPR.

Harry T. Burn, just 24 years old, a freshman delegate for the Tennessee House of Representatives, was the youngest member of the legislative body. Burn represented part of east Tennessee, as he came from the small-town set in the hills, Niota, Tennessee. In earlier votes he sided with the anti-suffragettes and voted to table the amendment which meant he could have killed the amendment by just not voting on it. However, that didn’t work out as the votes became tied at 48-48. The vote would not be tabled, they would vote on whether or not to ratify the suffrage amendment. When Burn was called for this vote, he said “aye.” He had flipped. The 19th Amendment is ratified. There is shock and chaos in the chamber of the Tennessee Capitol that day as no one knew what made Burn change sides.

As it turned out, Burn declared his vote with a letter in his pocket his mother Febb Burn sent from back home in Niota. He’d received the six-page letter from his mother just before the final vote. In it, Febb, a college-educated widow who was running the family farm, instructed her son, "hurrah and vote for suffrage, and don't keep them in doubt." Well, Burn did what we all know is always the best course of action. He listened to his mama.

According to NPR, he explained it plainly to his colleagues in the legislature. "I knew that a mother's advice is always safest for a boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification."

a statue of a man and a woman standing in front of a building: Visit Knoxville © Provided by Southern Living Visit Knoxville

Today, there is a monument honoring Burn and his mother in downtown Knoxville, which is just a short drive from the hometown of this unlikely hero in the women’s suffrage movement. The two bronze statues (in the photo above) depicting Harry Burn seated and his mother Febb standing watchful over him, hand on his shoulder in a guiding manner, can be found at the corner of Clinch Avenue and Market Square. The Burn Memorial was created in 2018 by Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire.

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This isn’t, of course, the end of the story of women's voting rights. Many women from minority communities and women of color wouldn’t gain the full ability to vote until many years later. But this is a major turning point in the face of the American electorate, made possible with a little help from Mama.

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