The long struggle of the women’s suffrage movement, beginning with the drafting of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1878, culminated on Aug. 18, 1920 when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify it.
The amendment prohibits the states and the federal government from denying the right to vote to citizens of the United States on the basis of sex
Susan B. Anthony, one of two famous original drafters of the 1878 amendment, has nothing on her lesser known female counterpart who effectively ended the decades of struggle.
Phoebe Ensminger Burn, known to her family and friends as Miss Febb, was the mother of the young Harry T. Burn of Niota, Tennessee who changed his vote in 1920 to support ratification and broke a tie in the House of Representatives, thus making history.
Minutes after ratification, Burn, wearing a red rose pinned to his lapel, fled to the attic of the state capitol and camped out there until the maddening crowds downstairs dispersed, according to an article published on History.com. Some say he crept onto a third-floor ledge to escape an angry mob of anti-suffragist lawmakers threatening to rough him up.
The 24-year-old representative from East Tennessee had two years earlier become the youngest member of the state legislature. The red rose signified his opposition to the proposed amendment
By the summer of 1920, 35 states had ratified the measure, bringing it one vote short of the required 36. In Tennessee, it had sailed through the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives, prompting thousands of pro- and anti-suffrage activists to descend upon Nashville. If Burn and his colleagues voted in its favor, the 19th Amendment would pass the final hurdle on its way to adoption.
That morning, Burn, who until that time had fallen squarely in the anti-suffrage camp, received a note from his mother, that included the phrase: “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage!”
She added, ‘Don’t keep them in doubt. I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet,” and ended the missive with a rousing endorsement of the great suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt, imploring her son to “be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”
During the vote, Burn still sported his red boutonniere but clutched his mother’s letter. He said “aye” so quickly that it took his fellow legislators a few moments to register his unexpected response.
The next day, Burn publicly expressed his personal support of universal suffrage, declaring, “I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify.” But he also made no secret of Miss Febb’s influence—and her crucial role in the story of women’s rights in the United States. “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow,” he explained, “and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”
There is a Woman Suffrage Memorial in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, located in Market Square, to honor state suffragists. The square is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The idea of women’s suffrage gained prominence in the United States as a result of the Seneca Falls Convention, held 30 years prior to the 1878 original drafting of the amendment.