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In our opinion: A mother, her son and the monumental achievement of women’s suffrage

In this Aug. 27, 1920 file photo, New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith, welcomes Carrie Chapman Catt, women’s suffrage leader, on her return from Tennessee, the last state to ratify the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, in New York. Catt carries a bouquet of blue and yellow flowers, colors of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association.
Associated Press

A century ago today, the Deseret News, like many other papers in the country, was confused. Had Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment, granting women everywhere in the nation the right to vote, or had it not?

An editorial in the Aug. 19 edition said “... victory in the struggle of more than half a century for woman’s franchise in the United States seems an accomplished fact,” but then went on to explain that Tennessee’s lower house might reconsider the matter. “... It is quite within the range of possibility that the action taken Wednesday may be reversed,” it said.

People who decry ugly politics today would be shocked if they could see what was happening in Nashville back then. Anti-suffragists were using every weapon they could find, including bribery and racial stereotypes that fed on the prejudices of the day. Give women the vote and you will empower Black women, is a much-sanitized version of what was being said. Businesses feared women would want to form labor unions if they got the vote. The liquor lobby gave free drinks to lawmakers who pledged to vote against suffrage, despite prohibition.

This was the last stand for the suffrage movement, and the entire country knew it. Every other state seemed set in concrete, either for or against ratification. The movement was one state short of enshrining the right for women to vote in the Constitution, and Tennessee was the last place where the vote remained uncertain. Had it failed there, women might have had to wait many more years, perhaps decades, to win the right to cast ballots.

A vote to table the issue failed in a tie, 48-48. A similar vote on the amendment itself would have killed it, and that seemed a certainty, which is why the House speaker decided to finally bring the amendment to a vote. In the end, however, the relationship between a mother and her son changed history.

Rep. Harry T. Burn, of tiny McMinn County, got a letter from his mother. He had been an anti-suffragist and had voted faithfully with that bloc. Febb Burn, a widow, was proud of her son for being elected to the state Legislature at the tender age of 22. Now she wrote and urged him to “be a good boy.” More to the point, she wrote, “Hurrah and vote for suffrage.”

Burn voted a soft and timid “aye,” when his turn came. That changed the course of the nation. Efforts to reconsider the vote were unsuccessful.

Ironically, the lawmakers he turned against later summoned a grand jury to investigate Burn for bribery in relation to his vote, but that effort failed. He provided a statement to the House journal that 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.”

In Utah, a lot of people probably wondered what the fuss was all about. Here, women had been the first in the nation to cast ballots 50 years earlier, a right Washington later forced them to relinquish for a time. The Legislature had ratified the 19th Amendment the previous September.

Utahns had long taken it for granted that women and mothers, whose role as “the hand that rocks the cradle” was sentimentalized during that age, surely had the ability to make decisions in matters of government and politics.

A century seems a long time, but anyone who has lived to senior status can attest that it really isn’t. The fight for the 19th Amendment wasn’t so long ago, and that is especially true when considering that, but for a letter from a concerned mother, it might have carried on for many more years.

What matters most today, however, is what women, and all Americans, do with their precious franchise. Unless they exercise it by responsibly studying issues and candidates, then casting ballots, all the struggles, and the letter from a concerned mother to her lawmaker son, will have mattered little.