The Mother Who Saved Suffrage: Passing the 19th Amendment

The Mother Who Saved Suffrage: Passing the 19th Amendment


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Minutes after Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment, essentially ending American women’s decades-long quest for the right to vote, a young man with 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. Some say he crept onto a third-floor ledge to escape an angry mob of anti-suffragist lawmakers threatening to rough him up.

READ MORE: Women's History Milestones: A Timeline

The date was August 18, 1920, and the man was Harry Burn, a 24-year-old representative from East Tennessee who two years earlier had become the youngest member of the state legislature. The red rose signified his opposition to the proposed 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which stated that “[t]he 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.” 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.

After weeks of intense lobbying and debate within the Tennessee legislature, a motion to table the amendment was defeated with a 48-48 tie. The speaker called the measure to a ratification vote. To the dismay of the many suffragists who had packed into the capitol with their yellow roses, sashes and signs, it seemed certain that the final roll call would maintain the deadlock. But that morning, Harry Burn—who until that time had fallen squarely in the anti-suffrage camp—received a note from his mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn, known to her family and friends as Miss Febb. In it, she had written, “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! 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.” She 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.”

Still sporting his red boutonniere but clutching his mother’s letter, Burn said “aye” so quickly that it took his fellow legislators a few moments to register his unexpected response. With that single syllable he extended the vote to the women of America and ended half a century of tireless campaigning by generations of suffragists, including Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns and, of course, Mrs. Catt. (“To get the word ‘male’ in effect out of the Constitution cost the women of this country 52 years of pauseless campaign,” Catt wrote in her 1923 book, “Woman Suffrage and Politics.”) He also invoked the fury of his red rose-carrying peers while presumably avoiding that of his mother—which may very well have been the more daunting of the two.

The next day, Burn defended his last-minute reversal in a speech to the assembly. For the first time, he 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.”

READ MORE: The Night of Terror: When Suffragists Were Imprisoned and Tortured in 1917


Failure is Impossible

The play Failure is Impossible was first performed on August 26, 1995, as part of commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the 19th amendment at the National Archives. To dramatize the debate for woman suffrage, playwright Rosemary Knower was commissioned to write this narrative script, drawing on the Congressional Record, petitions to Congress, personal letters within the legislative records of the Government, and other archival sources such as newspaper editorials and articles, diaries and memoirs.

Cast of Characters:

Narrator
Reader #1
Reader #2
Reader #3

Each reader portrayed several different people in the suffrage movement. However, a teacher could also assign different students to read the part of each individual.

Abigail Adams
Sarah Grimke
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Frederick Douglass
Susan B. Anthony
Sojourner Truth
Frances Gage
Lucy Stone
Clara Barton
Mr. Reagan, of Texas
Mary Ware Dennett
Harriot Stanton Blatch
Woodrow Wilson
Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Schuler

The Script

Based on Eyewitness Accounts and Original Documents

Narrator: Today is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Do I hear you say, wait a minute, the country is two hundred and nineteen years old, and women have only been voting for seventy-five years? What's the problem here? The problem began with the words of the Founding Fathers. Not the ones they put in. The ones they left out. In 1776, when John Adams sat with a committee of men in Philadelphia, writing the Declaration of Independence, he got a letter from his wife, Abigail:

Reader #1 (Abigail Adams): John, in the new code of laws . . . remember the ladies. . . . Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. . . . We . . . will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.

Narrator: But when the Founding Fathers sat down to write the Declaration and the Constitution, they left out one critical word: "Women." Nearly sixty years later, when Sarah and Angelina Grimke spoke to state legislatures about the evils of slavery, their actions were denounced from the pulpit as contrary to God's law and the natural order.

Reader #3 (pastoral letter): The power of woman is her dependence, flowing from that weakness God has given her for her protection. When she assumes the place and tone of a man as a public reformer, her character becomes unnatural, and the way opened for degeneracy and ruin.

Narrator: Sarah Grimke had an answer for that.

Reader #2 (Sarah Grimke): This distinction between the duties of men and women as moral beings! That what is Virtue in men is Vice in women. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks and permit us to stand upright.

Narrator: In 1848 a group of women organized the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. It took great courage. In the 1840s respectable women did not even speak in public, let alone call meetings. Elizabeth Cady Stanton said later:

Reader #1 (Elizabeth Cady Stanton): We felt as helpless and hopeless as if we had suddenly been asked to construct a steam engine.

Narrator: But they were determined. They rewrote the Declaration of Independence.

Reader #1 (Stanton): "We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men and women are created equal . . ."

Narrator: And they called for equal rights under the law. At the convention, abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke in favor of women voting. Reporting the resolutions of the convention in his newspaper, The North Star, he noted:

Reader #3 (Frederick Douglass): In respect to political rights, . . . there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the elective franchise.

Narrator: In the 1850s, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone led a group of courageous women who plunged headlong into the fight for abolition and universal suffrage. They formed the American Equal Rights Association. One newspaper denounced them as:

Reader #3 (newspaper editorial): Mummified and fossilated females, void of domestic duties, habits, and natural affections."

Narrator: In fact, most of the women were married, with children. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote suffrage speeches while nursing her sixth child, a daughter who would continue her mother's work.
When the Civil War began in 1861, suffragists deferred their campaign for the vote to give full attention to the national crisis. Annie T. Wittenmeyer was appointed superintendent of all army diet kitchens. Mary Walker served as the first female surgeon. Louisa May Alcott and thousands of other women served as nurses. Anna Ella Carroll was one of Lincoln's advisers on strategy.
In 1865, when the war was over, and Congress debated an amendment to give freed slaves the right to vote, the suffragists petitioned Congress to include women, too.

Reader #2 (Susan B. Anthony): We represent fifteen million people—one-half the entire population of the country—the Constitution classes us as "free people," yet we are governed without our consent, compelled to pay taxes without appeal, and punished for violations of law without choice of judge or juror. You are now amending the Constitution, and . . . placing new safeguards around the individual rights of four million emancipated slaves. We ask that you extend the right of suffrage to women—the only remaining class of disfranchised citizens—and thus fulfill your constitutional obligation.

Narrator: Sojourner Truth, whose speech "Ain't I a Woman?" had so moved the Equal Rights Convention in 1851, spoke again in 1867 for women's right to vote.

Reader # 1 (Sojourner Truth): I . . . speak for the rights of colored women. I want to keep the thing stirring, now that the ice is cracked. . . . You have been having our rights for so long, that you think, like a slaveholder, that you own us.

Reader #1 (Frances Gage): Suffragist Frances Gage wrote, "Fifty-two thousand pulpits in this country have been teaching women the lesson that has been taught them for centuries, that they must not think about voting. But when fifty-two thousand pulpits at the beginning of this war, lifted up their voices and asked of women, 'come out and help us' did they stand back? In every home in the whole United States, they rose up and went to work for the nation."

Narrator: But in spite of the petitions and the passion, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were silent on the issue of voting rights for women. Nevertheless, the suffragists would not give up. In 1869 Lucy Stone sent out "An Appeal to the Men and Women of America":

Reader #2 (Lucy Stone): Get every man or woman to sign [this petition] who is not satisfied while women, idiots, felons, and lunatics are the only classes excluded from the exercise of the right of suffrage. Let the great army of working-women, who wish to secure a fair day's wages for a fair day's work, Sign It. Let the wife, from whom the law takes the right to what she earns, Sign It. Let the mother, who has no legal right to her own children, Sign It . . .

Narrator: Civil War nurse Clara Barton spoke at the Suffrage Convention in 1870:

Reader #1 (Clara Barton): Brothers, when you were weak, and I was strong, I toiled for you. Now you are strong, and I ask your aid. I ask the ballot for myself and my sex. As I stood by you, I pray you stand by me and mine.

Narrator: When the Senate considered "The Woman Question" again in 1872, the same tired old arguments were raised to oppose women voting.

Reader #3 (Mr. Reagan, of Texas): I hope sir, that it will not be considered ungracious in me that I oppose the will of any lady. But when she so far misunderstands her duty as to want to go to working on the road and serving in the army, I want to protect her against it. [Should] we attempt to overturn the social status of the world as it has existed for 6,000 years.

Narrator: The congressman from Texas wasn't the only lawmaker who argued that if the Founding Fathers had meant women to vote, they would have said so directly. Elizabeth Cady Stanton responded:

Reader #1 (Stanton): Women did vote in America at the time the Constitution was adopted. If the Framers of the Constitution meant they should not, why did they not distinctly say so? The women of the country, having at last roused up to their rights and duties as citizens, have a word to say. . . . It is not safe to leave the "intentions" of the [Founding] Fathers, or of the Heavenly Father, wholly to masculine interpretation.

Narrator: Congress appointed a committee to study the floods of petitions arriving daily from women. This is how it worked:

Reader #3 ("Feeler Feelix," Cracker-Barrel Philosopher): Women's petitions are generally referred to a fool committee of fools, . . . carefully laid on the floor of the committee room to be a target at which to shoot tobacco juice. And the committee man who can hit the mark oftenest is regarded as having done the most to kill the petition. . . .

Narrator: Even the President of the United States remained indifferent to the poignant arguments of the suffragists. Elizabeth Cady Stanton said of President Rutherford Hayes:

Reader #1 (Stanton): In President Hayes's last message, he reviews the interests of the Republic, from the army [and] the navy to . . . the crowded condition of the mummies, dead ducks and fishes in the Smithsonian Institution. Yet [he] forgets to mention twenty million women citizens robbed of their social, civil, and political rights. Resolved, that a committee be appointed to wait upon the President and remind him of the existence of one-half of the American people whom he has accidentally overlooked.

Narrator: The pioneer women who were then settling the West had no intention of being overlooked. Women in the territory of Wyoming won the vote in 1869, followed shortly by women in the neighboring territories of Utah, Colorado, and Idaho. When Wyoming applied for statehood in 1890, a furious block of senators opposed its admission because it allowed women to vote. The senator from Tennessee called it "a reform against nature" and predicted it would "unsex and degrade the women of America." But Wyoming's citizens refused to give in. Their legislature cabled back to Washington:

Reader #3: "We will remain out of the Union a hundred years rather than come in without our women!"

Narrator: Encouraging words, but as the years of struggle rolled by, the women of Seneca Falls realized that they would not live to vote. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote:

Reader #1 (Stanton): We are sowing winter wheat, which other hands than ours will reap and enjoy.

Narrator: Twenty-four hours before she died, in 1902, Stanton dictated this plea to Theodore Roosevelt:

Reader #1 (Stanton): Mr. President, Abraham Lincoln immortalized himself by the emancipation of four million slaves. Immortalize yourself by bringing about the complete emancipation of thirty-six million women.

Narrator: By 1900, over three million women worked for wages outside the home, often in hazardous and exploitive conditions, often with their children beside them at the machinery. They needed the ballot to give them a voice in making labor laws. In the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, 146 workers were killed trying to escape an unsafe building into which they had been locked to keep them at work. Suffragist Mary Ware Dennett wrote:

Reader #2 (Mary Ware Dennett): It is enough to silence forever the selfish addleheaded drivel of the anti-suffragists who say that working women can safely trust their welfare to their "natural protectors". Trust the men who allow seven hundred women to sit wedged between the machines, in a ten-story building with no outside fire escapes, and the exits shuttered and locked? We claim in no uncertain voice that the time has come when women should have the one efficient tool with which to make for themselves decent and safe working conditions—the ballot.

Narrator: Working women flocked to the suffragist banner. With this new army of supporters, women succeeded in putting suffrage on the states' agendas.

Reader #1: In 1912 the suffrage referendum was passed in Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon.

Reader #2: Defeated in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin . . .

Narrator: In 1913, five thousand women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue on the day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, asking for the vote. They were mobbed by a hostile crowd.

Reader #1: In 1914 the suffrage referendum passed in Montana and Nevada.

Reader #2: Defeated in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri.

Reader #1: 1915. The suffrage referendum failed in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.

Reader #3: In Massachusetts, the saloons handed out pink tickets printed with "Good for Two Drinks if Woman Suffrage is Defeated."

Narrator: When the United States entered World War I in 1917, women were urged, once again, to put aside their cause for the war effort. Elizabeth Cady Stanton's daughter reminded them:

Reader #1 (Harriot Stanton Blatch): The suffragists of Civil War days gave up their campaign to work for their country, expecting to be enfranchised in return for all their good services. . . .
They were told they must wait. Now in 1917, women [are] still waiting.

Narrator: But the suffragists of 1917 had read history. They worked for the war, and they continued to work for the vote. While women in unprecedented numbers entered war service, standing in for soldiers in factories and on farms, they also held mass meetings, handed out countless leaflets, sponsored parades, plays, lectures, and teas—anything to get the arguments for women's suffrage before the public.

Reader #2: One suffragist said, "Some days I got up at 5:30 and did not get home until midnight, going from office to office, talking the question out."

Reader #3 (eyewitness article): In New York, 1,030,000 women signed a petition asking for the right to vote. The petitions were pasted on placards borne by women marchers in a suffrage parade. The procession of the petitions alone covered more than half a mile.

Narrator: Other suffragists turned to the militant tactics of the Women's Party. They picketed outside the White House, keeping their vigil in rain and cold. This was a new tactic in 1917! The police finally arrested them for "obstructing traffic." One eyewitness described the arrests:

Reader #2 (Suffragist): An intense silence fell. The watchers . . . saw not only younger women, but white-haired grandmothers, hoisted into the crowded patrol [wagon], their heads erect, and their frail hands holding tightly to the banner until [it was] wrested from them by brute force.

Narrator: Other suffrage organizations lobbied, appealed to every state, and canvassed every legislature while the White House pickets kept public attention focused on the issue. Finally, in 1917, at the height of the First World War, President Wilson spoke to urge the Congress to act on suffrage:

Reader # 3 (Woodrow Wilson): This is a people's war. They think that democracy means that women shall play their part alongside men, and upon an equal footing with them. If we reject measures like this, in ignorant defiance of what a new age has brought forth, they will cease to follow us or trust us.

Narrator: In January of 1918, the Nineteenth Amendment to give women the right to vote came before the House:

Reader #2 (Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Schuler): Down the roll-call, name by name, droned the voice of the Clerk. Mann of Illinois and Barnhart of Indiana had come from hospital beds to vote for suffrage Sims of Tennessee came, in agony from a broken shoulder, to vote yes Hicks of New York came from his wife's deathbed to keep his promise to her and vote for suffrage.
Yes—No—name-by-name came the vote. It was close, but it was enough.

Reader #1: When the vote was over, the corridors filled with smiling, happy women. On the way to the elevators a woman began to sing, "Praise God, from whom all blessings flow," with the words of the suffragists:

(Sweet Adelines sing:)
Praise God, From Whom All Blessings Flow
Praise Him All Women Here Below—
(They continue singing, softly)

Narrator: Despite this monumental triumph, the suffragists still had much work to do. It would be another year before the Senate passed the suffrage amendment, and another year beyond that before the necessary thirty-six states would ratify it. Finally, on August 26, 1920, seventy-five years ago today, the Nineteenth Amendment gave women throughout the nation the right to vote.
At the last Suffrage Convention of 1920, Carrie Chapman Catt spoke to the joyful women:

Reader #1 (Catt): Ours has been a movement with a soul, ever leading on. Women came, served, and passed on, but others came to take their places. Who shall say that all the hosts of the millions of women who have toiled and hoped and met delay are not here today, and joining in the rejoicing? Their cause has won.
Be glad today.
Let your joy be unconfined. Let it speak so clearly that its echo will be heard around the world.
[Let] it find its way into the soul of every woman . . . who is longing for the opportunity and liberty still denied her.
Let your voices ring out the gladness in your hearts! . . .
Let us sing, together, "My Country, 'Tis of Thee . . .
(Sweet Adelines begin "My Country 'Tis of Thee" on this cue the audience joins in:)

My Country 'Tis of Thee,
Sweet Land of Liberty,
Of Thee I Sing.
Land Where My Fathers Died
Land of My Mothers' Pride
From Every Mountainside
Let Freedom Ring.

© 1995 by Rosemary H. Knower. No permission or royalty fees are required for educational uses of this script.


The History of the Women’s Movement

Sources in this Story

Women had been advocating for their rights for decades before the amendment was passed, participating in marches and parades, lobbying, acts of civil disobedience, silent vigils, even hunger strikes. Some met with violent resistance and suffered physical abuse and jail time.

The suffrage movement grew out of the abolitionist and temperance movements of the mid-19th century, as women involved in those efforts became politically active. In 1848, about 250 suffragists including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott gathered for the historic Seneca Falls women&rsquos rights conference in New York.

After the Civil War, African-American men gained the right to vote with the 15th Amendment. In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Stanton created the National Woman Suffrage Association to advocate for an amendment to the Constitution, and Lucy Stone formed the American Woman Suffrage Association to work with state legislatures on the issue.

The two groups later combined to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1872, Anthony was arrested for trying to vote for Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election. Wyoming was the first state to grant full suffrage to women when it entered the Union in 1890, and 14 other states&mdashmost in the west&mdashgranted full suffrage by 1920. Most states in the midwest and northeast granted at least partial suffrage, such as the ability to vote only in presidential elections.

&ldquoBy the beginning of the 20th century, the role of women in American society was changing drastically women were working more, receiving a better education, bearing fewer children, and several states had authorized female suffrage,&rdquo according to History.com.

The era also brought about the rise of women&rsquos groups such as the Women&rsquos Christian Temperance Union, the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Association of Colored Women and the Women&rsquos Trade Union League.

By 1916, the Democratic and Republican parties both endorsed the enfranchisement of women. The tide took a decisive turn in favor of women when New York adopted women&rsquos suffrage in 1917 and President Woodrow Wilson announced his support of the amendment in 1918.


1920: 19th Amendment Gives Women Right to Vote

On Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified after decades of struggle by women’s rights advocates, bringing a successful end to the U.S. women’s suffrage movement.

Women Gain Suffrage

The 19th Amendment was first introduced to Congress in 1878. Forty-one years later, it was passed by both houses of Congress on June 4, 1919, and sent to the states for ratification.

Women’s suffrage was supported in the west and north, but strongly opposed in the south. With Connecticut and Vermont slow to ratify and nine southern states plus Delaware entrenched against the amendment, it fell on Tennessee to be the 36th state to ratify, which would give the amendment the two-thirds majority it needed to become law.

The state Senate voted to ratify, but the state House of Representatives was deadlocked 48-48. Suffrage supporters and opponents descended on Tennessee ahead of the Aug. 18 vote on ratification, which appeared doomed to fail. But one representative, 24-year-old Harry T. Burn, changed his vote because of a note given to him by his mother: “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! … Don’t forget to be a good boy.”

With Burns’ vote, Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment. On Aug. 26, 1920, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the amendment, forever changing the American electorate and the place of women in American society.

“Women in fighting for the vote have shown a passion of earnestness, a persistence, and above all a command of both tactics and strategy, which have amazed our master politicians. A new force has invaded public life,” wrote The New York Times in an editorial shortly after the ratification.

1. 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.

2. Congress shall have power to enforce this Article by appropriate legislation.

The History of the Women’s Movement

Women had been advocating for their rights for decades before the amendment was passed, participating in marches and parades, lobbying, acts of civil disobedience, silent vigils, even hunger strikes. Some met with violent resistance and suffered physical abuse and jail time.

The suffrage movement grew out of the abolitionist and temperance movements of the mid-19th century, as women involved in those efforts became politically active. In 1848, about 250 suffragists including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott gathered for the historic Seneca Falls women’s rights conference in New York.

After the Civil War, African-American men gained the right to vote with the 15th Amendment. In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Stanton created the National Woman Suffrage Association to advocate for an amendment to the Constitution, and Lucy Stone formed the American Woman Suffrage Association to work with state legislatures on the issue.

The two groups later combined to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1872, Anthony was arrested for trying to vote for Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election. Wyoming was the first state to grant full suffrage to women when it entered the Union in 1890, and 14 other states—most in the west—granted full suffrage by 1920. Most states in the midwest and northeast granted at least partial suffrage, such as the ability to vote only in presidential elections.

“By the beginning of the 20th century, the role of women in American society was changing drastically women were working more, receiving a better education, bearing fewer children, and several states had authorized female suffrage,” according to History.com.

The era also brought about the rise of women’s groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Association of Colored Women and the Women’s Trade Union League.

By 1916, the Democratic and Republican parties both endorsed the enfranchisement of women. The tide took a decisive turn in favor of women when New York adopted women’s suffrage in 1917 and President Woodrow Wilson announced his support of the amendment in 1918.

Several documents related to the 19th Amendment and the women’s suffrage movement are available at the National Archives Web site, including a 1868 resolution proposing an Amendment to the Constitution, a petition to Congress submitted in 1871 and the ratification of the 19th Amendment by the state of Tennessee.

Later Development: The Equal Rights Amendment

Sources in this Story

In 2012, we published this article about this historic event on the New York Times Learning Network. This article connected the event to current issues and offered reflection questions to help the reader think about its relevance today.


Women were restricted in society

By the early 19th century, American society had fully embraced the 𠇌ult of True Womanhood,” an ideology that claimed women were best suited in the home, serving as the family’s moral guide. This protected-class status was intended to shield women from being sullied by the nefarious influences of work, politics and making war. In reality, the custom paved the way for laws banning women from attending colleges, entering professional work, voting, serving on juries and testifying in court. Many states outlawed women from owning property or entering into contracts. From an early age, women were placed on the path of marriage and motherhood. For single women, options were limited to teaching or nursing, with the social label of being an “old maid.” 

However, during this time the United States was also going through a tremendous transformation. Industry was surpassing agriculture in productivity and profitability. Slavery’s days were numbered, though its demise would only happen through civil war. Religious enlightenment was engaging Americans to think of themselves as a chosen people with a mission to improve society. The political climate was ripe and in need of women’s moral guidance. At the top of the list was the abolition of slavery. Two sisters from a South Carolina plantation, Angelina and Sara Grimke, wrote and spoke fervently to end slavery. The subsequent disapproval by some clergymen of their activities led them to expand their efforts towards women’s rights. 

Photo: John Opie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fueled by the writings of 18th-century women’s rights activist Mary Wollstonecraft, whose book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, many women began to push for greater rights. The seminal moment for Elizabeth Cady Stanton came while attending the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London when she, and the other women attending, were banned from participating in the proceedings. 

When Stanton returned to her hometown of Seneca Falls, New York, she and her friend Lucretia Mott organized the first women’s right convention, held on July 19-20, 1848. There she introduced a �laration of Rights and Sentiments” modeled after the Declaration of Independence. As she stood before the delegation, she nervously read from the document, 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

The convention delegates nodded approvingly, hearing the familiar words spoken. Emboldened, Stanton introduced several resolutions, the last advocating a woman’s right to vote. Many delegates, both men and women, were appalled at the audacity. Some doubted whether women were qualified to vote, while others felt that such a right was unnecessary as most women would likely vote with their husbands. After a stirring speech by African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the resolution passed. The partnership between abolition and suffrage had been solidified and, it seemed, the two movements would achieve their respective goals together. 


The Mother Who Saved Suffrage: Passing the 19th Amendment - HISTORY

Susan B. Anthony stood on a stage in Upstate New York, asking a crowd to support the suffragist cause, when someone in the audience asked a question: Do women actually want the right to vote?

Her answer was hardly unequivocal.

“They do not oppose it,” Anthony replied vaguely.

She had little reason to believe otherwise, as recounted in Susan Goodier’s book, “No Votes for Women: The New York State Anti-Suffrage Movement.” It was 1893, and suffragists were traveling across New York to build support ahead of a constitutional convention, when lawmakers would decide if the word “male” should be removed from the wording of the state constitution. Until then, most of the opposition to women’s suffrage had been dominated by men.

But as the suffragists would soon learn, women would play a crucial role in attempting to prevent women from gaining the right to vote. As the suffragist movement gained momentum, women mobilized committees, circulated petitions, and created associations to oppose women’s suffrage in New York and Massachusetts. Thousands of women would eventually join their fight.

“They said, ‘We’ve got to do something,'" Goodier said, “or else we’re going to be stuck with the vote.'”

Their efforts would ultimately fail with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920. But the anti-suffragist women would become a nationwide force that would influence later generations of conservative women. And today, a century after women gained the right to vote, echoes of their message remain.

Granting women the right to vote, the anti-suffragists argued, would lead to a disruption of the family unit, of a woman’s role as a wife and mother, and of what they considered a privileged place in society — themes that would parallel those of Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative activist who would successfully campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.

But their reasons for opposing suffrage were often more complex, focusing on the idea that women already had their own form of power. Many of the women in the anti-suffrage movement felt that the political system was a corrupt space, and if women joined it, they would inevitably become just as corrupt as the men, said Anya Jabour, a history professor at the University of Montana.

They felt women could better achieve their aims through influencing others — particularly their husbands and sons — using their supposed moral superiority to persuade men to do what they wanted.

“The argument was if they traded that for raw political power, they would lose female influence, and that would be a bad trade,” Jabour said.

The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, founded in 1911, distributed a pamphlet explaining why women shouldn’t be allowed to vote:

“Because it means competition of women with men instead of co-operation. Because 80% of the women eligible to vote are married and can only double or annul their husbands’ votes. … Because in some States more voting women than voting men will place the government under petticoat rule.”

The pamphlet then offered a few tips to housewives, among them: “You do not need a ballot to clean out your sink spout. … Control of the temper makes a happier home than control of elections.”

Leaders in the movement distributed postcards illustrating the gender role reversals they feared would happen if women became enfranchised. Images showed men holding grocery baskets, pushing baby strollers and washing clothes. Others suggested that if women began doing the work of men, they would become uglier, less feminine, less desirable to men.

“They were quite successful in demonizing suffragists and feminists and depicting them as being un-attractive man-haters,” Jabour said, drawing comparisons with modern-day attacks on feminists.

Others argued that women couldn’t possibly get involved with politics while also caring for their children and their home. One postcard, titled “Hugging a Delusion,” showed an image of a woman sulking while cradling a ballot like a baby. Another showed a woman trying to juggle a baby, a pan, a broom and a paper with the word “suffrage.” “Can she do it?” the cartoon read.

The New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage distributed this cartoon by Laura Foster. (Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society)

Suffragists were forced to counter these arguments by making the case that yes, “women will still do everything that they’re supposed to do in the women’s sphere, but also vote,” Jabour said.

“I think we’re still dealing with exactly these messages,” said Allison Lange, an associate professor of history at the Wentworth Institute of Technology. “Even a century later, women’s rights activists, female leaders are still faced with exactly the same criticism.”

But understanding their arguments requires understanding who these women were. Since many in the anti-suffrage movement were ideologically opposed to women being public figures, they often identified themselves only using their husbands’ names or issuing statements on behalf of an organization, rather than an individual, Jabour said.

The anti-suffragist women generally came from elite, White families on the East Coast, and tended to be married to, or related to, men in politics or law. But they were also often influential leaders in social activism and philanthropy. In many ways, anti-suffragist women were similar in status to suffragist leaders, Goodier said. “They would move in a lot of the same circles.”

One of the most famous anti-suffragists, Annie Nathan Meyer, was a writer, philanthropist and founder of New York City’s first liberal arts college for women, Barnard College. Her sister, Maud Nathan, publicly supported women’s suffrage. Ida Tarbell, who is credited with pioneering what is today known as investigative journalism, publicly opposed women’s suffrage, arguing that a woman’s place is in the home and not in the man’s world — even though her groundbreaking career was an exception to that rule.

Many anti-suffragists were White women with powerful positions. Journalist Ida Tarbell's career ran counter to her arguments about women's roles. (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress)

One of the most important anti-suffragist activists was Josephine Jewell Dodge, a founder and president of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. She came from a wealthy and influential New England family her father, Marshall Jewell, served as a governor of Connecticut and U.S. postmaster general. Dodge was also an early leader in the movement to establish day-care centers for working and immigrant mothers in New York City.

But she considered suffrage unnecessary, given that state legislatures had already passed laws protecting certain civil rights for women.

“The suffrage disturbance is, in plain words, a sex disturbance … just as the impulse of some other women to take up foolish fancies and unnecessary movements is the result of that uneasiness and straining after artificial happiness and unnatural enjoyment which indicates an unsettled and an unsatisfactory state of mind,” she wrote in a newspaper article in 1913.


Harry T. Burn

Harry T. Burn, 1919. Courtesy Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Born and raised in the small town of Niota in Eastern Tennessee, Harry T. Burn became the youngest member of the Tennessee General Assembly when he was elected in 1918 at the age of twenty-two. He entered history two years later, on August 18, 1920, when he cast the deciding vote to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In his pocket was a letter from his mother, Febb Burn, urging him to “be a good boy” and vote for the amendment. He took her advice.

By the summer of 1920, thirty-five states had ratified the women’s suffrage amendment. Eight had rejected it. One more was needed for it to become law, and Tennessee looked like suffragists’ best (and possibly only) hope. The legislature had called a special session to vote on the amendment. The battle in Nashville had been fierce. Suffragist and anti-suffragist campaigners lobbied, cajoled, and browbeat lawmakers in the Tennessee State Capitol and the halls of the nearby Hermitage Hotel.[1] One of their targets was Harry Burn.

Burn personally supported suffrage, but he was under tremendous political pressure. He was up for reelection that fall and knew his constituents in McMinn County did not want women to vote. The Tennessee suffragists had lobbied him and thought he seemed supportive, but they couldn’t be sure. In the meantime, many of Burn’s Republican colleagues and mentors, concerned about their political fortunes in the state, pressured him to oppose suffrage.

On August 18, Burn entered the General Assembly chamber wearing a red rose in his lapel, the symbol of the anti-suffragists. When a motion to table the amendment—which would have all but doomed it—came up, he voted for it. But the vote was a tie. Seeking to kill the amendment once and for all, the anti-suffrage Speaker called for another vote on the amendment itself. Burn’s yes or no vote could pass it—or send it down to defeat.

Anyone watching could conclude that Burn had chosen to oppose suffrage. But in fact, he was wracked by indecision. A letter from his mother, Febb Burn, had been delivered to him in the chamber. “Hurrah and vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt,” it read. “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. [Carrie Chapman] Catt.” As he waited to vote, he had the letter in his pocket.

To the astonishment of the onlookers, when Burn’s name was called, he voted “aye.” The 19th Amendment would become the law of the land. The next day, Burn explained his choice. “I believe in full suffrage as a right,” he said. “I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify. I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

After a hard-fought campaign, Harry Burn narrowly won reelection in the fall of 1920. He went on to a long career in public office in Tennessee. He married Ellen Folsom Cottrell in 1937 and had one child, Harry T. Burn, Jr. Burn died on February 19, 1977 at the age of 81.

Notes
[1] The Tennessee State Capitol was added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 8, 1970 and designated a National Historic Landmark on November 11, 1971. The Hermitage Hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 24, 1975 and designated a National Historic Landmark on July 28, 2020.


Learn More

  • See the entry for the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the Library’s Primary Documents in American History guide series.
  • Search in the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection on constitutional amendment to retrieve additional documents outlining arguments for and against the suffrage amendment. Also, read NAWSA’s final report on the voting rights campaign. With ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, its work concluded and the association was reorganized as the League of Women Voters External.
  • Search the papers of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to find items related to the women’s suffrage movement.
  • Images related to the suffrage movement are available in Women’s Suffrage: Pictures of Suffragists and Their Activities. View the timeline entitled One Hundred Years Toward Suffrage.
  • Other digital collections that document the suffrage movement include the Scrapbooks of Elizabeth Smith Miller and Anne Fitzhugh Miller, included with the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, the Carrie Chapman Catt Papers, Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party, and Women’s Suffrage in Sheet Music, among others.
  • Search Chronicling America to find historic newspaper articles about the suffrage movement. In addition, the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room has created a series of topics guides to the newspapers in Chronicling America, including guides on the Nineteenth Amendment, Susan B. Anthony, and the Golden Flyer Suffragettes.

Suffrage Postcards

Postcards were extremely popular in the early 20th century. Commercial photographers sold postcards of suffrage protests, while the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s publishing company sold postcards with attractive propaganda, often designed by female artists. Some postcards highlighted women’s patriotism, while others featured anti-suffrage imagery.

Click an image below for a larger view.

Viaduct Studios, Patriotic Postcard of four African-American Women, 1910s, Viaduct Studios, Postcard, courtesy of private collection of Barbara F. Lee Photographed for the exhibit

Leet Bros. Inez Milholland riding a white horse in a suffrage parade., 1913 Mar 03 , Leet Bros., Postcard, 3.5x5.5 inches, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

“Did I save My Country for This!”, Postcard, 3.5 x 5.5, Courtesy of private collection of Barbara F. Lee, Cambridge, MA
Photographed for the exhibit

Black and White &ldquoVotes for Women&rdquo postcard, BM Boye Verso: Vote for Woman Suffrage October 10, 1911 It stands fourth on the ballot, Postcard, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

I. & M. Ottenheimer (American), Liberty and Her Attendants (Suffragette&rsquos Tableau) In front of Treasure building, March 3, 1913, Washington DC, 1913 Mar 03 , Postcard, 3.375x5.325 inches , Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Votes for Women. Spirit of &lsquo76, Postcard, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Votes for Women. I Want to Speak for Myself at the Polls, Emily Hall Chamberlin, 1915, Postcard, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Valentine&rsquos Greetings United States, Postcard, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Suffragists&rsquo New Year&rsquos Greeting, Postcard, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

The Land of Counterpane, Postcard, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Votes for Our Mothers (babies marching), c1915, National Woman Suffrage Publishing Company, Inc., Postcard, approx. 3.5x5.5 inches, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

“When Lovely Woman Get the Vote”, early 1900s, Postcard, 5.25 x 3.3125, courtesy of private collection of Barbara F. Lee, Cambridge, MA
Photographed for the exhibit

Stay at Home Dad, Postcard, 5.5 x 3.5, courtesy of private collection of Barbara F. Lee, Cambridge, MA
Photographed for the exhibit

Henry Blackwell, Postcard, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Women Ask a Voice in their Own Government (Flag), Postcard, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Uncle Sam, Suffragee, Postcard, 5.5 x 3.5, Courtesy of private collection of Barbara F. Lee, Cambridge, MA
Photographed for the exhibit

Votes for Women A Success: The Map Proves It, Postcard, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Votes for Women Merry Xmas, Postcard, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Wain Cat (?), early 1900s, Original, Postcard, 5.5 x 3.5, courtesy of private collection of Barbara F. Lee, Cambridge, MA
Photographed for the exhibit

Leet Bros. Head of Suffragette Parade Passing Treasury, 1913 Mar 03, Leet Bros., Postcard, 5.5x3.5 inches, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Parade Passing Suffragette Stand, 1913 Mar 03, Postcard, 5.5x3.5 inches , Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Leet Bros. Contingent of Trained Nurses, 1913 Mar 03 , Leet Bros., Postcard, 5.5x3.5 inches, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Leet Bros. Sweden, One of the Countries Where Women Vote, 1913 Mar 03 , Leet Bros., Postcard, 5.5x3.5 inches , Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Ottenheimer, I. & M. Suffragettes&rsquo procession moving up Pennsylvania Avenue showing the Capitol Building in the background, March 3, 1913 Washington DC, 1913 Mar 03 , I. & M. Ottenheimer, Postcard, 5.5x3.5 inches, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

The Long 19th Amendment Project Portal is an open-access digital portal that facilitates interdisciplinary, transnational scholarship and innovative teaching around the history of gender and voting rights in the United States.

The portal is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and by a generous gift from the Schlesinger Library council member John Wright Ingraham ’52, MBA ’57, in memory of his mother, Mildred Wright Ingraham, an activist for women’s suffrage in the United States and a lifelong source of inspiration for John and his family.


Rightfully Hers: Woman Suffrage Before the 19th Amendment

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the National Archives exhibit Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote highlights activists’ relentless struggle to secure voting rights for all American women. While most Americans consider voting fundamental to the enjoyment of full citizenship, the majority of women did not secure that right until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

However, certain states, such as Wyoming, New Jersey, and Utah, granted women the right to vote decades before the 19th Amendment was ratified. In some instances, women were allowed to vote in certain elections for example, in 1838 widows in Kentucky who owned property could vote for school trustees. In other cases, women enjoyed full voting rights before the 19th Amendment. These cases pioneered the woman suffrage movement and were a necessary precedent for the passage of the 19th Amendment.

During the 1840s–1850s, Americans came in droves to western territories, specifically Wyoming, in search of gold. As the gold rush in Wyoming slowed down, settlers stopped coming, and the territory needed a new way to attract more.

At this time, men outnumbered women in the Wyoming Territory six to one. Lawmakers sought to address the uneven population of men and women through woman suffrage. Their hope was that having the right to vote would bring women to Wyoming, and they would stay and vote for the party that gave them that right: the Democrats.

The Wyoming legislature passed a bill granting women the right to vote, and on December 10, 1869, Governor John Campbell signed the bill into law. When the Wyoming Territory became a state on July 10, 1890, Wyoming became the only U.S. state that allowed women to vote. In fact, Wyoming insisted it would not accept statehood without keeping woman suffrage.

Although the Wyoming was a pioneer in woman suffrage, other states, such as New Jersey, previously allowed women to vote. After the Revolutionary War, the New Jersey Constitution read: “All inhabitants of this Colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds proclamation money, clear estate in the same, and have resided within the county in which they claim a vote for twelve months immediately preceding the election, shall be entitled to vote for Representatives in Council and Assembly and also for all other public officers, that shall be elected by the people of the county at large.”

Even though the New Jersey Constitution granted both men and women the right to vote married women could not vote or own property due to coverture. Coverture was a legal fiction that subsumed a woman’s legal rights and obligations under her husband.

In 1797, the election laws of New Jersey referred to voters as “he or she” throughout the whole state. Many unmarried women voted in New Jersey from 1776 to the early 1800s.

However, the clause “he or she” was rescinded in 1807 and changed to “free, white, male citizens.” The change in the language of voting laws restricted women from voting as well as African Americans and noncitizens.

New Jersey was not alone in allowing women the right to vote only to later revoke it. While western territories allowed women to vote to gain population, the Utah Territory, which was controlled by the Church of Latter Day Saints, allowed woman suffrage because they also wanted to retain their right of polygamy.

Polygamy is the practice of having more than one wife at the same time, which was endorsed by the Church of Latter Day Saints before 1890. In an effort to retain this practice, the legislature of the Utah territory passed a bill enfranchising women, which was signed into law on February 12, 1870.

However, in 1887, the U.S. Congress—which controlled territories—disenfranchised women in Utah with the Edmunds-Tucker Act. This was seen as a way to weaken the Church of Latter Day Saints and the practice of polygamy. In 1890 the Church of Latter Day Saints ended its endorsement of polygamy and in 1895 adopted a Constitution with woman suffrage. The next year, Utah was admitted into the Union allowing woman suffrage.

While Wyoming, New Jersey, and Utah all allowed women the right to vote at some point in time—albeit with varying levels of restrictions—the greatest victory for the woman suffrage movement was the 19th Amendment. This triumph was achieved on August 18, 1920, when Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment as the 36th and final state necessary for the amendment to pass.

Want to learn more about woman suffrage? Visit the National Archives, which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment with the exhibit Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote. The exhibit runs in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, through January 3, 2021.



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