The Mother Who Secured Women’s Suffrage

Ninety-five years ago Tuesday, the state of Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment, thus securing the right to vote for American women.

Tennessee was the 36th state to ratify the amendment on August 18, 1920, pushing the amendment past the two-thirds majority of states that women needed. But the vote was a close one: It only passed when Harry Burn, a 24-year-old member of the House of Representatives, decided at the last minute to reverse his longstanding opposition to women’s suffrage.

Burn was the youngest member of the state legislature, and wore a red rose boutonniere that day to signify that he would vote against the potential new law. (Those in favor of ratification wore yellow roses, while those against wore red.) Going by the roses’ colors, many anticipated that the vote would end in a gridlock.

That was, until Burn received a note from his mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn. In the note, she wrote, “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt.” In a nod to suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt, she then added, “Be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”

Still clutching his mother’s note, Burn voted “aye.” And only a few days later, on August 26, the 19th Amendment went into effect as law, ending suffragists’ half-century long campaign.

Burn later defended his change of heart by saying, “A mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Lucas Jorklicensed under Creative Commons 2.0.




Carter Sherman is a former Ms. editorial intern. She recently graduated from Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and international studies, and has previously interned at Elle and Los Angeles Magazine. Follow her on Instagram at @heyyymizcarter.