August 18, 1920, Memphis, TN. Securing women’s right to vote was an excruciatingly long battle that lasted 72 years and ended one hundred years ago today with a ‘too close to call’ vote in the Tennessee legislature. Tennessee was the only remaining undecided state that could become the necessary 36th state to ratify the 19th amendment, giving women that right.
There was great opposition to allowing women to vote. One of the biggest supporters in Tennessee was Joe Hanover who had been born in Poland and escaped by being hidden in a gunny sack. When he got safely to America, he began to wonder, ‘why in democratic America, women seemed left out’. “If I had been female,” he declared, “I would have felt that I had no voice, that I was shut out.” It was true that his father could vote but his mother could not. “I knew it wasn’t right…I always believed women should be equal.”
Joe would go on to graduate from law school and be elected to the Tennessee legislature where he campaigned tireless for women’s equality.
On the day of the vote, another Tennessee legislator, Harry T. Burn, was undecided about how to cast his vote. His constituents wanted him to vote against suffrage and he was inclined that way. After all, he was up for re-election. However, Harry had received a message that morning from his mother, asking him to vote for suffrage. “Put the ‘rat’ in ‘ratification’” she is noted as saying.
A vote was taken to table the amendment, which would have caused its ultimate demise. It was a 48-48 tie.
Those against the amendment next called for a vote on the amendment itself. When Harry Burn’s name was called, he voted ‘AYE’ and the tie was shattered, but not without consequences to Harry who remained firm in his decision even though he had to have a bodyguard’s protection. Even with such animosity, Harry was elected to a second term.
“I had always believed that women had an inherent right to vote. It was a logical attitude from my standpoint. My mother was a college woman, a student of national and international affairs who took an interest in all public issues. She could not vote…On that roll call, confronted with the fact that I was going to go on record for time and eternity on the merits of the question, I had to vote for ratification.”
May we never forget that one person can make the difference for all of us. On August 26th, Women’s Equality Day, our nation will officially celebrate this landmark event.
Condensed from The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage by Carol Lynn Yellin & Janann Sherman.