Jerry Kopel


Well, August 26th has come and gone. Did you see any parades? Neither did I. Seventy-four years ago, on August 26, l920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote, was ratified. This column is about the state that cast the deciding vote and how the battle on the floor of its House will be recognizable to Colorado House members who served in the 80's.

The 66th Congress gave the needed two-thirds majority to the 19th Amendment in June of 1919. It read:

 "Section l. 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. Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

Thirteen months later, 35 states had ratified the amendment. One more state was needed, and the choice by supporters was to make it Tennessee. The fight for and against the amendment would be made mainly by women. On one side was the National American Woman Suffrage Association (the Pros) and on the other side was the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (the Anti's).

Lobbying groups backing the Anti's were liquor, railroad and manufacturers, the latter being concerned that woman suffrage would lead to higher wages for women and enactment of child labor laws.

National leader of the Pros was Carrie Chapman Catt, who warned Tennessee Pro leader Catherine Kenny to establish a Men's Ratification Committee..."do it quickly before the opposition has made it impossible." Finding out that the Tennessee Pros were fighting amongst themselves, Mrs. Catt came to Tennessee to take charge. The Pros would identify themselves by the yellow rose.

Leading the Anti's in Tennessee was Miss Josephine Anderson Pearson. She made it a race issue, claiming the 19th Amendment would cause surrender of state sovereignty, Negro women suffrage, and race equality. Her men's group was called the Tennessee Constitutional League. The Anti flower choice was the American Beauty Red Rose.

But the Anti's did have some legitimate concerns. Would suffrage end protective labor laws for women, such as limited working hours, maternity dispensations and no nightwork (although these seemed to be honored more in the breach.) Joining Miss Pearson was Miss Charlottee Rowe of New York who claimed she had attended the Democratic Presidential convention in San Francisco where she had seen suffrage women " jump upon desks and permit men to hoist them to their shoulders, and one even went so far as to do an Indian war dance in front of the speaker's stand."

On August 7th, Tennessee Governor Albert Roberts called the Sixty-first Tennessee General Assembly, consisting of 99 House and 33 Senate members, into extraordinary session. As the out-state House and Senate members arrived in Nashville, they were met by the ladies and chose the appropriate rose (red or yellow) to place on their clothing.

The governor's ally, House Speaker Seth Walker, had agreed to introduce the ratification resolution in the House. Then he changed his mind and joined the Anti's. The state senate was not a problem. It voted for ratification on August l3 by 25 to 4.

The House was a different story. No one really had accurate tallies because of the intense lobbying. The ratification amendment passed out of the House committee by a vote of 10 to 8. Voting day was August l8th and the House galleries were packed. Pros wearing white dresses with yellow sashes and Anti's in red.

Ninety-six House members were present. After lengthy debate, House Speaker Walker turned his gavel over to another Anti, and went to the podium to speak. He moved to table the amendment. But Walker has miscalculated his votes. The motion was tied, 48 to 48. The amendment was still alive. But Walker knew a tie vote would also kill the amendment, so he called for an immediate vote on the original motion for ratification.

One young representative, Harry Burn, who had voted to table, now voted for ratification. It passed 49 to 47, and Speaker Walker tried one last maneuver, changing his vote from "nay" to "aye" and moved to reconsider. He would have seventy-two hours to call it to a vote. But it was to no avail, and the motion was voted down on August 2lst.

The real story was why Harry Burn, who represented an Anti constituency, had voted "yes". It turned out the deciding factor was a letter from his mother, who had written:

"Dear Son: Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don't keep them in doubt. I noticed some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don't forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the 'rat' in ratification. Your Mother."

Governor Roberts signed the certificate of Tennessee's ratification on August 24th and U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby issued his proclamation of final ratification on August 26th. Next time you need to switch a vote, why not contact the legislator's mother? It worked in Tennessee.

 Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

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