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One hundred years ago this month, on August 18, 1920, the 36th state ratified the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution and it was adopted into law. (It comes between the 18th Amendment–Prohibition–which was ratified on January 16, 1919, and the 20th, or “Lame Duck Amendment,” which altered the start and end dates of Presidential and Congressional terms, and which was ratified on January 23, 1933.
The 19th Amendment gave women citizens of the United States the unalienable right to vote. Well, most of them, anyway.
The full text of the 19th Amendment runs 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.”
The 19th Amendment said nothing about denying or abridging the right to vote on the basis of race. Supposedly, that matter had been addressed in the 15th Amendment (ratified February 3, 1870) which stated that 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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
But, regardless (or irregardless, as the case may be) of the good intentions of those who led and pushed through that initiative, 50 years before women achieved the rights accorded full citizenship status in this country, local laws such as literacy requirements, residency requirements and documentation requirements continued to make it difficult for Negroes, whether men or women, to vote throughout the first decades of the 20th century and the matter wasn’t fully redressed at the federal level until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
The march for women’s suffrage began in the mid 19th century, and the amendment pertaining to it was first introduced to Congress in 1878. In the intervening 42 years before it was ratified at the national level, slow, but measurable progress was made. Nine Western states had adopted legislation giving women the right to vote by 1912. New York established women’s suffrage in 1917. President Woodrow Wilson, after spending his first few years in office fiddle-faddling around and avoiding the issue (while women were marching, hunger-striking, rioting, and burning him in effigy–plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose), had a change of heart in 1918 when he acknowledged the contribution, both at home and abroad, of women to the war effort and asked, in an address to the Senate:
We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?
Quite a difference from the words of a much younger Woodrow Wilson in 1884, when he described, in a letter to a friend, his reaction to hearing a woman speak at the Association for the Advancement of Women in Baltimore:
Barring the chilled, scandalized feeling that always overcomes me when I see and hear women speak in public, I derived a good deal of whimisical delight . . . from the proceedings.
and, remarking on “a severely dressed person from Boston, an old maid from the straitest set of old maid”
she was a living example–and lively commentary–of what might be done by giving men’s places and duties to women.
Nine months after Wilson’s impassioned and supportive speech to the Senate, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States achieved the necessary votes in that body, was sent to the states for ratification, and Woodrow Wilson was deemed a hero in the eyes of his female supporters. Well, most of them anyway. A notorious racist (a fact conveniently overlooked in Leftist hagiographies, and only now starting to cluck its way home to roost**), Wilson had written that Reconstruction had placed the South under “the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes,” and seemingly never revised this opinion, overseeing, as President, the segregation of several federal departments, and supporting, or at least turning a blind eye to, numerous initiatives that effectively stymied integration and equitable treatment of Blacks at the federal level. There’s not much evidence that his thinking on the matter of race ever evolved in anything like his radical transformation on the subject of women’s suffrage, about which he said, following its ratification by the States, and its being signed into law
I deem it one of the greatest honors of my life that this great event, so stoutly fought for, for so many years, should have occurred during the period of my administration.
But I digress.
The person I really wanted to talk about today isn’t Woodrow Wilson. It’s Harry Burn.
Railway-worker Harry T. Burn was born on November 12, 1895, in Mouse Creek (only in America), TN. In 1918, running as a Republican, and at the age of 22, he became the youngest person ever elected to the Tennessee General Assembly. Over the course of a long and apparently fulfilling and successful life (he died on February 19, 1977, aged 81), Harry bounced in and out of politics at the state level, ran a thriving law practice, and eventually became President of First National Bank in Rockwood TN.
But he’s best known for a vote that occurred when he was still barely dry behind the knees, during his first term as the Representative for Mouse Creek. (Known, by then, as Niota. What a loss. Apparently it was named after a fictional Indian chief, Nee-o-tah, from a dime-store novel of the time. Surely an unforgivable microaggression that needs to be addressed and rolled back.)
In the summer of 1920, 18 months after Harry first took office, Tennessee began the debate on women’s suffrage that could, potentially, lead to federal ratification. Thirty-five states had already voted to do so, and only one more was needed.
But, drama! As of August 18, 1920, the vote was deadlocked at a tie, and it seemed as if the country would have to wait for another state (there were three in the throes of setting up a vote) to make its move and put the ladies on top. Metaphorically, of course.
In the two preceding roll calls, Harry had, both times, voted “Nay.” He’d been a bit of a squish to start with, but his spine had been stiffened by a rousing debate (much of which was, if contemporary reports are accurate and not just fake news, utter hogwash), he’d sided with the traditionalists and it seemed the vote was destined to die on the vine, as a tie-vote went into the “loss” column.
But Harry was carrying around something that was burning a hole in his pocket–a silver bullet, a clarion call to action, and a thing which he found bothering his conscience and impossible to ignore.
It was a July 11, 1920, six-page letter from his mother, Febb Burn, and buried in the weeds of local news, complaints about the weather, motherly concern about her son’s political career, and sundry other minutiae of family life were these tidbits:
Hurrah and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed [Walter] Chandlers’ speech, it was very bitter. I’ve been watching to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet
Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. ‘Thomas Catt’ [suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt] with her “Rats.” Is she the one that put rat in ratification, Ha! No more from mama this time.
It was an injunction impossible to withstand. Harry Burn voted “Yea” on women’s suffrage on August 18, 1920, and by doing so, he put Tennessee in the “ratify” column. Despite some subsequent shenanigans, in which disgruntled opponents tried to get the vote overturned on technicalities, and several assemblymen fled the state in an effort to prevent a quorum in the legislature (didn’t this happens somewhere else, recently?), the vote stood. Six days later, Governor Albert H. Roberts certified Tennessee’s ratification of the 19th amendment, and on August 26, 1920, US Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby issued a proclamation and signed it into law.
And 100 years ago today, on August 31, 1920, 26-year-old Mrs. Marie Ruoff Byrum of Hannibal, MO, became the first woman in the United States to cast her vote in a political election under the unalienable right assured her by the 19th Amendment. (The other claimant to that honor, Miss Margaret Newburgh of South St. Paul, MN, who voted four days previous, on August 27, is usually discounted, because that vote was for a water bond bill, and had been hastily scheduled for no other purpose than to have a woman participate under the new law.)
Whatever one thinks of women’s suffrage (a subject that still inspires heated debated now and again), I can’t do other than think it’s somehow sweet and fitting that, at the time and in the place where it finally came to be, it was voted into existence not by some wild-eyed progressive bleeding-heart and professional do-gooder, not by a sense of noblesse-oblige or the thought that it was about time that women should be “granted” the vote, not by a fellow looking to put his name in the history books, but by a very young man who did what his mother told him to do.
I can’t help thinking we’d be a lot better off if more young men followed suit.
**It’s an unfortunate consequence of the current political climate that, events having got out in front of establishment Progressives (see what I did there) and “suddenly” exposed Woodrow Wilson for the unregenerate racist he was (something many of the rest of us had known about him for years), the inevitable reaction on the Left has been to cancel him. (Margaret Sanger is undergoing a bit of the same treatment at the moment.) The unfortunate consequence of all of that will be the loss of historical perspective and the endpoint that Orwell feared when “nothing exists except an eternal present in which the Party is always right.”
(Susan B. Anthony is in danger of cancellation too. But I think her crime is mainly that, 114 years after her death, Donald Trump said something nice about her and, earlier this month, posthumously pardoned her for voting illegally in 1872. While it’s clear that she wasn’t wholly admirable, she was certainly enlightened by the standards of her time, and it is only now that she’s been singled out by Trump that the New York Times [and the National Organization of Women] have suddenly discovered what a moral degenerate and horribly “divisive” figure she must have been. Sigh.)
Editor’s Note: We have heard from a descendent of Harry Boyd’s mother, who has written a well-researched book on the life and times of this extraordinary gentleman, and who disputes much of the commonly-held story presented here. For those who’d like to know more about Harry the man, and his many achievements, versus Harry, the myth, consider reading Tennessee Statesman Harry T. Burn: Woman Suffrage, Free Elections and a Life of Service.Published in