Look Ma, I Amended the U.S. Constitution!

By John Matthews

Next month marks the 100th anniversary of universal women’s suffrage in America. The right for all females to vote in all elections was secured on August 18, 1920, by the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

But you knew that. What you may not know is the preeminent importance of Tennessee and Tennesseans to the successful passage of this legislation.

Also you may not know that, like any other movement in history, the woman’s right to vote did not happen in a federal vacuum. What existed was a crazy quilt of state laws that had no cohesion or political symmetry.

For example it would be incorrect to state that prior to the amendment women could not vote; in some cases they could. Also, some states allowed the female vote in local tax, bond and/or school issues but nothing more. A few disallowed that but sanctioned the vote in primary and presidential elections. Some states – mostly located in the Western United States – allowed women to vote in any and all elections. Still others sanctioned the right to vote to men only.  

Note: Wyoming had universal suffrage incorporated into its state constitution and elected America’s first female governor, Mary Tayloe Ross, in 1924. Governor Ross is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.

Archives and Manuscripts Library of Virginia

While it had been a topic of discussion since the founding of the nation, the national movement for women’s suffrage began in earnest shortly after the Civil War and slowly built up steam over the decades. By the turn of the 20th Century the movement had formally organized with the driving force being the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). 

In 1900, the energetic Carrie Chapman Catt took over the post of President of the NAWSA from the iconic Susan B. Anthony. Ms. Catt formulated a comprehensive national and state by state strategy that backed elections of those office seekers sympathetic to the cause while lobbying existing state legislators for support. 

One of Catt’s quietly-whispered strategies was to encourage her members to withhold “affections” from their husbands until they could be “gently persuaded” to support the cause. Having over two million members, coupled with an unusually cold winter that year, the NAWSA wielded a formidable weapon with the denial of affection (!) being used as a force multiplier.

‘Tennessee Women Do Not Back Down’

The state of Tennessee had no shortage of committed and outspoken suffragists. 

Memphian Elizabeth Avery Merriwether was an early and very vocal advocate for the movement. For years she maintained a voracious letter writing campaign that flooded the inboxes of area newspaper editors. With characteristic bombast, she butted heads with Memphis police and election officials by attempting to vote in the 1876 presidential election. Upon her move out of state, the torch was passed to her sister-in-law Lide Merriwether, who in 1887 founded the state’s first women’s suffrage organization in Memphis.

Sue Shelton White

Sue Shelton White of Henderson, TN joined an offshoot of the NAWSA, named the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, and later became head of the National Women’s Party. Upon obtaining a law degree, Shelton became deeply involved in politics at all levels and, after passage of the 19th Amendment, became administrative head of Senator Kenneth McKeller’s Washington D.C. office. She finished her career as Principal Legal Counsel for the newly formed Social Security Administration.  

These ladies are but a few of the female forces that proved what Tennessee men knew then and know now: Namely, Tennessee women do not easily back down from a challenge!

Tennessee Son Holds Passage In The Balance

Amending the United States Constitution was by design made to be difficult and complicated – early 1800s Chief Justice John Marshall famously wrote that the Constitution was written “to endure for ages to come.” 

First, the US Senate and House had to pass the bill by a 2/3 majority in both chambers which would allow the proposal for amendment to be submitted to each state governing body. For the 19th amendment, this was done in 1919. Then state legislative bodies had to vote by majority whether or not to ratify the amendment. The Constitution stipulates that a minimum of 75% of the states are required to pass the legislation for an amendment to be ratified. In 1919 the USA consisted of 48 states; thus requiring passage by at least 36.

By mid-year 1920, 35 states had voted FOR ratification with the balance appearing to hold firm on the NO side of the ledger. Tennessee was barely in the anti-suffrage league, having had two prior votes on the amendment that ended in a 48-48 tie. Each time the tie was broken by the Speaker of the State House (Seth Walker, a suffrage opponent) to ultimately end up as a 48-49 rejection.

But then something odd occurred during the third and final vote by the Tennessee House of Representatives. The youngest man ever elected TN state representative, 23-year-old Harry Burn, (R) McMinn County, suddenly reversed course from his two previous “No” votes.

With Mr. Burns’ “Aye” vote on ratification, Tennessee became the final state required to amend the Constitution of the United States. The utterance of that one word from from the mouth of that young man once and forever changed our national political trajectory. 

But what caused young Harry Burn to make this change that resulted in an alteration of American society? His mother told him to!

Meaningful advancements in great societies rarely occur without somewhat seismic social spasms. Sometimes we move forward peacefully, but usually not. More often change on this scale is accompanied by great upheavals – even wars have been fought to decide the justness of certain causes. 

But in this unique case, the simple love and respect by a boy for his mother, quite likely coupled with the desire for familial peace at the Thanksgiving table, seemed worthy enough to amend what many consider the most powerful document in human history. Now that makes for one proud Momma! 

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