Remembering a historic decision

Aug. 26 was National Women’s Equality Day, in recognition of that date in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was certified, concluding a 72-year campaign to win women’s right to vote.

Tennessee’s role was crucial as the 36th state to vote to ratify, achieving the minimum number of states required.

The story begins Aug. 18, 1920, in the chamber of the state House of Representatives. The gallery was filled with women wearing yellow roses in support of suffrage as the speaker called for a vote to break a tie. The youngest representative, 24-year-old Harry Burn of East Tennessee, wore a red rose on his lapel, signifying his opposition, but that morning he had received a letter from his mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn, Miss Febb, where she urged, “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage!” concluding her letter with reference to the suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt with, “be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”

Harry stood to vote, clutching his mother’s letter. He said “aye” so quickly it didn’t register immediately, but was followed shortly by an explosion of cheers and jeers.

The next day Harry explained his reversal saying, “I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify,” then credited his mother saying, “A mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow.”

A statue of Rep. Harry Burn and his mother Febb, created by Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire, now sits at the corner of Clinch Avenue and Market Square in downtown Knoxville.

Cheryl Peyton