Editorial: Celebrating passage of women’s suffrage 100 years ago

  • Phoebe Ensminger Burn at her Niota farm in Tennessee. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Published: 8/17/2020 5:17:18 PM

One hundred years ago, Phoebe Ensminger Burn, of Tennessee, awoke to a day like any other. It was hot and humid, with temperatures probably reaching into the upper 80s. She donned her glasses, milked her cows, browsed the morning’s newspaper, sat down on her front porch and wrote a letter to her son, Harry, that changed the world.

“Dear Son,” she wrote, “Hurray and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt.”

Burn’s son, Harry Thomas Burn Sr., was a 24-year-old Republican member of the Tennessee General Assembly, having been elected to the position a few years prior. When Harry Burn punched in for work that morning, a red rose was pinned to his lapel — a symbol of the anti-suffrage movement.

He wasn’t in favor of ratification.

In the weeks leading up to Aug. 18, 1920, 35 other states had voted to make official the 19th Amendment of the Constitution, a step toward codifying into national law many decades worth of tireless labor by renowned suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Juno Frankie Pierce, Lucy Stone, Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt.

Tennessee was the last of the necessary 36 ratifying states required to secure nationwide adoption. The ratification proposal was approved by the state’s Senate; however, the measure was expected to fail in the House, with 49 legislators in favor and 50 against.

Rep. Harry Burn was the 50th vote.

On that day, fiery debate roared through the halls of the Tennessee General Assembly. The vote was tabled twice before a final tally was taken. It was deadlocked at 48 in favor and 48 opposed when it came time for Rep. Burn to decide. With his mother’s letter tucked in a jacket pocket just below the red rose pin, he cast a surprise vote in favor of ratifying the 19th Amendment of the Constitution.

When asked later why he had changed his mind, Rep. Burn said, “I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

Phoebe Burn, a widowed farmer who lived in Niota, a small rural community, turned the tide for the entire nation.

Today, we mark 100 years to the day since Rep. Burn listened to his mother and Tennessee voted to ratify the 19th Amendment. For us, it’s a day to celebrate progress toward a more equal nation, to acknowledge the murky history of our past and to honor the selfless advocacy of countless women.

We owe them a great debt.

Against the tide of public opinion and risking life and limb, they worked tirelessly to achieve a better future for everyone.

A century on, we’re reaping the benefits of their labor; but that doesn’t mean there’s no more work that needs to be done. In 2020 America, society is still slanted against women; there remains a pay disparity that’s correlated to gender; toxic language is spewed from American leaders without repercussion.

Equality is still on the horizon.

Like the suffragist heroes of America’s past, it’s up to modern women and men of conscience from all walks of life to advocate for a better future. Tomorrow’s generation will experience the fruit of today’s labor. In this pursuit, even the smallest acts of advocacy can make a profound difference — just ask Phoebe Burn, who wrote a letter to her son one day in August 100 years ago.

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