On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The 19th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote to women. Though it would take decades longer for states to rid themselves of local laws precluding women from voting and for women of color to be enfranchised as part of this amendment, its passage changed American politics forever.
The quest for the vote for women started in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. At this meeting, often referred to as the birthplace of American feminism, Stanton presented a Declaration of Sentiments that declared “all men and women are created equal,” and demanded the vote for women as proof of that statement. From this convention, suffrage groups were created. Some believed that pursuing suffrage state by state would be the best strategy, while others thought national suffrage would serve women best.
By 1918, 70 years after the Seneca Falls Convention, 15 states had individually granted women the right to vote. In Montana, the first female member of Congress was elected, Jeanette Rankin. She stood before the House of Representatives in the midst of a World War and said, “How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” The bill passed in the House and failed in the Senate. The amendment came up again and, in the summer of 1919, the House and Senate passed it.
Once the amendment had been passed through Congress, it was up to a majority of states to ratify it. This process took over one year as state congresses met and voted on the subject. On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee House of Representatives met for a vote to ratify the amendment. Harry Burn cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the amendment with a letter from his mother in his pocket that read: “Hurray and vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt . . . Don’t forget to be a good boy.”
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