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How the mother of a young Tennessee lawmaker helped ratify the 19th Amendment

Zach Vance • Oct 28, 2018 at 4:30 AM

Sometimes blood is thicker than political affiliation, and the Tennessee House of Representatives' vote to ratify the 19th Amendment 98 years ago is a perfect example.

In 1919, with support from outgoing President Woodrow Wilson, both houses of Congress passed the 19the Amendment, which stated "the rights 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," and the measure was sent to the states for ratification.

By August 1920, thirty five states had passed the measure, and Tennessee became the center of attention, as it was the only state left where a vote could be taken that year.

Connecticut, Vermont, North Carolina and Florida refused to take up the resolution, and the remainder of states had rejected it.

During the same time, Harry Burn, a 24-year-old from McMinn County, was serving his second year in the Tennessee House of Representatives. When he was first elected in 1919, Burn became the youngest member of the state legislature at the time.

A Republican, Burn proudly wore a red rose on his jacket, signifying his opposition to the women's suffrage movement. Supporters of women's right to vote wore yellow roses, and the ensuing debate was often known as the "War of the Roses."

The Tennessee Senate voted to approve the ratification of the 19th Amendment, leaving it up to the divided Tennessee House of Representatives to choose whether the 19th Amendment would be ratified or not.

Weeks of intense lobbying ensued, and finally on Aug. 18, the legislature chose to vote on a motion to delay the ratification vote. By counting the roses, the anti-suffrage proponents appeared to have a 49 to 47 majority, but state representative Banks Turner, wearing his red rose, switched sides and deadlocked the vote at 48-48, pushing the ratification vote forward.

Even with Turner's support, the measure still needed at least 49 votes for ratification to happen, and this where Burn's mother, Phoebe King "Febb" Ensminger Burn, made history.

That morning, Febb Burn wrote a note and passed it on to her son.

It stated, "Hurray and vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed (an opponent’s) speech, it was very bitter. I’ve been waiting to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet…. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Cat put the 'rat' in ratification." Mrs. Cat referred to Carrie Chapman Catt, a leader of the suffrage movement at the time.

With that note in his pocket, Turner surprised nearly everyone by voting 'aye' on ratifying the 19th Amendment of the United States Constitution. On Aug. 26, 1920, the official documents arrived in Washington, D.C., and were signed into law.

Burn later made the case that he voted to table to motion so it could resurface the next legislative session, but once it came to the floor vote, his mind was made.

“I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification," Burn said on the House floor. "I appreciated the fact that an opportunity such as seldom comes to a mortal man to free 17 million women from political slavery was mine.”

Several lawmakers who supported the ratification of the 19th Amendment, including Democratic Tennessee Gov. Albert H. Roberts, lost reelection in 1920, but Burn was elected to serve a second term from 1921 to 1923.

Burn was later granted the ability to practice law by the state bar association, and in 1930, he made an unsuccessful bid to unseat incumbent Democratic Gov. Henry Horton, before going on to serve in the state Senate between 1949 and 1953.

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