2020 is an important time to reflect on the story of voting in the United States. The year marks important milestones — 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, 150 years since the ratification of the 15th Amendment and 55 years since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — all parts of long, complex, multi-generational movements fueled by diverse, remarkable people.
The larger history of voting rights in America is a far more complex story than the oversimplified tales often told, and that complexity underscores how difficult it has been for many to secure the most elemental marker of citizenship.
Dr. Lisa Tetrault, Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, prize-winning author of The Myth of Seneca Falls, and a prominent scholar of women’s suffrage, here provides insights into the complex history of the 19th Amendment, which is now celebrating its 100th anniversary (August 18, 2020).
“Suffragists stood in stunned disbelief as the news came in that Tennessee had ratified the 19th Amendment, the last state needed. After nearly a century of struggle, women’s suffrage was now law. It was almost too much to comprehend. Smiles crept across incredulous faces. Cries rang out. Hugging and celebrations erupted. It was finally over.
As word frantically crisscrossed the nation, the scenes from Tennessee included a dramatic finish that seemed more like cinema than real life. The issue of women’s suffrage had, by this point, after decades of agitation, already been voted upon thousands of times—in cities, states, and of course, in a long-resistant Congress. That body had finally approved the amendment in the summer of 1919, sending it to the states for yet more votes. States quickly ratified, slowed, then stopped. Now, after all these battles and endless vote counting, its fate came down to one man who got a stern scolding from his mother.
Harry T. Burn was the Tennessee legislature’s youngest member, barely into his early 20s. Like others, he was quickly engulfed by entreaties from advocates and opponents, who all rushed into Nashville when the pending vote was announced. Liquor flowed. Outrageous claims about voting women destroying the family and, thus, civilization, were once again trotted out with vigor. Copious back-door deals were made for “no” votes. Suffragists seemed doomed.
But one entreaty made all the difference. Unsure of his stance, Phoebe Burn—or Febb, as she was known—wrote her son a letter. “I’ve been watching to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet.” Unsatisfied, she pressed her son, “Hurrah and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt.” Febb then urged Harry, for good measure, to “be a good boy.”
As the roll call unfolded on August 18, 1920, it appeared the amendment would go down to defeat. Then, out of nowhere, Harry T. Burn, holding the letter in his breast pocket, heeded his mother, changed his vote, and offered the final “aye” needed. In the end, his bravery persuaded another legislator to change his vote, and the amendment, so long deferred, cleared ratification by a mere two-vote margin.
“Tennessee House Ratifies…Giving Women of Entire Nation Vote This Fall,” trumpeted one Massachusetts newspaper. Any basic web search will tell you the same. Today, centennial declarations also celebrate the 19th Amendment as guaranteeing all women the right to vote.
In reality, however, millions upon millions of women still could not vote.
What did Harry T. Burn, egged on by his mother, push over to victory then? So caught up in our stories about its passing, we forget to actually read the amendment.
Its text banned the states from discriminating in voting “on the basis of sex.” That’s it– nothing more. Where states still required voters to be “male,” the amendment rendered this unconstitutional. That obstacle was forever gone—a historic, monumental victory that opened voting to millions of women.
However, in all these states where “male” had been struck in voter eligibility laws, other obstacles remained, all of which the 19th Amendment left standing.
States had long lists of requirements, many of which were racially targeted, including literacy tests, poll taxes, and more. Millions of women of color (and some white women) still had additional barricades to clear, before they could ever access a voting booth.
When these women came to the mainstream suffrage organizations asking that the fight go on—until the headline that “all women” voted rang true—leading white suffragists turned them away. These Black, Brown, Asian-American, and Indigenous women battled on, bravely, but without the support of their supposed sisters. White women’s suffragists, instead, declared victory.
America has long adored a happy Hollywood finish, where a mother’s letter recasts the fate of a nation, bringing justice for all. Keep watch over the tales spun this anniversary, however. Like most of history, this reality was—and remains—far more complex. For many women, 1920 was no final chapter and victory remained deferred.”
- by Lisa Tetrault, Ph.D, Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and prize-winning author of The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898.
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