Ninety years ago Harry Burn obeyed his mom and cast the deciding ballot that gave women the right to vote.
Harry T. Burn, the youngest member of the Tennessee State legislature, nervously fingered the letter in his jacket pocket. On August 18, 1920, the eyes of Americans everywhere were on Tennessee. Thirty-five states had ratified the 19th Amendment, which would give women the right to vote. One more was needed. The issue had torn Tennessee apart. Burn’s own McMinn County constituency was mostly anti-suffrage. The 26-year-old Republican had been besieged with letters and telegrams urging him to vote against the bill.
Then there was the letter in his pocket. This one was from Febb Burn. She was his mother.
Earlier that month, a local paper ran a cartoon of a woman chasing the letters “RAT’’ with a broom, trying to drive them up in front of the letters “IFICATION.’’ The woman in the cartoon was supposed to be Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Febb, a widowed farmwoman and avid newspaper reader, had seen the cartoon. She knew her son’s political future might be torpedoed by voting for the amendment. She didn’t care. She also knew what was right.
In a chatty letter Febb wrote, “Dear Son…Hurray and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt….Don’t forget to be a good boy, and help…Catt with her ‘Rats.’” Some historians have noted that Febb was asking her son to take a stand rather than make the safe, politically expedient choice. This was true; but also true, and less noted, was that Febb wasn’t exactly thrilled with her son’s career choice to begin with. “I do hope you are still in the notion of not making the race this fall,” she wrote in the same letter. “I hope you see enough of politicians to know it is not one of the greatest things to be one.”
Twice already on that sweltering August day, the bill had gone up for a vote. Twice, Burn had voted with the “antis.” The vote was tied. So House Speaker Seth Walker—an anti—moved to table the discussion until safely after the fall elections. This suited Harry Burn just fine. He was eager for this issue to not be a deciding factor in his upcoming reelection. So were many of his fellow state legislators. But then, when the votes for tabling the resolution were counted, it was 48 for, 48 against. The vote was recounted. Again, 48 for, 48 against. The House was forced to vote on the amendment one more time. When Burn’s turn came, he hesitated. There was his seat. There was that letter in his pocket. His mother.
Burn changed his “Nay” to an “Aye.” And with that one vote, American women were enfranchised.
Pandemonium broke out. Before Burn could escape—reportedly by climbing through a window, though this version of events is in some dispute— opponents of the amendment went on the attack. Anti-suffrage activist Josephine Pearson screamed from the public gallery that Burn was “a traitor to manhood’s honor.” The next day, Burn was accused of taking a $10,000 bribe to change his vote. The telegrams rolled in: The vote, wrote one Maryland anti, “DISGRACES STATE/RUINS SOUTH.”
Although outraged at the accusations of bribery, Burn was unfazed. And when explaining his decision in the House Journal, he was not shy about mentioning mom: “I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”
Despite opposition from many constituents, Burn was reelected to the Tennessee legislature. Was his change in vote an exercise of conscience? Perhaps. Then again, the major factor may have been a little guilt-inducing noodge from a brave and smart mom.
Judith Newman writes for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair. Her twin sons test her ability to wield maternal influence.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.