The Nudge And Tie Breaker That Took Women's Suffrage From Nay To Yea Tennessee was the final state needed to ratify the amendment that secured women the right to vote. At the last moment, a young state legislator switched his vote to yes after his mom asked him to.
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The Nudge And Tie Breaker That Took Women's Suffrage From Nay To Yea

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The Nudge And Tie Breaker That Took Women's Suffrage From Nay To Yea

The Nudge And Tie Breaker That Took Women's Suffrage From Nay To Yea

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It was just 39 words added to the U.S. Constitution. The 19th Amendment ratified 100 years ago tomorrow secured women the right to vote, and the final step toward ratification hinged on one young man in Tennessee and his mother. NPR's Melissa Block brings us that story.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Long after the Seneca Falls Convention launched the movement in 1848 after suffragists had marched, picketed the White House, staged hunger strikes and endured force feeding in prison, finally in August of 1920, their dream was in sight. They needed just one more state for the 19th Amendment to be enshrined in the Constitution.

ELAINE WEISS: Tennessee turns out to be their last best hope, and that terrifies them.

BLOCK: Because they knew other states weren't going to budge and opposition in the South was fierce, explains Elaine Weiss. Her book, "The Woman's Hour," is all about the dramatic suffrage battle in Tennessee where opponents used racism and the fear of Black women's empowerment to stoke resistance.

WEISS: The racial arguments that are made are both ugly and abhorrent.

BLOCK: Many business interests were opposed, too, so lobbyists descended on the capital, Nashville, in droves. Listen to Tennessee suffragist Abby Crawford Milton describing the vote wrangling and dirty tricks decades later when she was 101.


ABBY CRAWFORD MILTON: The bribery that went on in that legislature is beyond belief.

BLOCK: Take the liquor lobby, which was angling to overcome the women's temperance movement and end prohibition, it set up what became known as the Jack Daniel's Suite in the Hermitage Hotel.


CRAWFORD MILTON: And they served liquor there to the members, all the members that they could get drunk.

BLOCK: To lubricate votes against suffrage. Now, with all this going on, the women were out in force, both for and against suffrage. They were buttonholing legislators, even standing guard at Union Station to make sure a cowardly or coerced delegate didn't skip town and miss the vote. And author Elaine Weiss says it was easy to tell which side people were on.

WEISS: It's often called the War of the Roses.

BLOCK: Those for women's suffrage wore a yellow rose, those against wore a red rose. Now, into this frenzy enters a young man named Harry T. Burn.

WEISS: Twenty-four years old, freshman delegate from the tiny hill town of Niota in east Tennessee.

BLOCK: The youngest member of the legislature given the nickname Baby Burn. On August 18, 1920, Harry Burn walks onto the House floor of the Tennessee Capitol with a red rose pinned to his jacket lapel. The antis are sure Harry Burn is on their side. And twice that day, he votes with them to table the suffrage amendment; that is, to kill it by not voting on it. But that fails when the votes end in a tie, so now comes the moment of truth - the vote on whether to ratify the 19th Amendment itself.

CAROLE BUCY: So the pressure was intense because every person sitting there knew it's us or it won't happen.

BLOCK: That's Carole Bucy, history professor at Volunteer State Community College. She says women have packed the gallery to watch. The chamber is a sea of yellow and red roses.

BUCY: Harry Burn is called, and he, in what was regarded to be a fairly quiet voice, said aye.

BLOCK: Harry Burn has flipped. The tie is broken. Everyone is shocked.

WEISS: The 19th Amendment is ratified, and then all hell breaks loose.

BLOCK: Elaine Weiss again.

WEISS: You have the suffragists screaming and crying and throwing their yellow roses down onto the legislators, and the anti-suffragists are just horrified, and they're hissing and screaming at Harry Burn.

BLOCK: What they didn't know is that Harry Burn had a letter in his pocket that day, a letter he'd received shortly before the vote from his mother Febb Burn back in Niota.

SANDRA BURN BOYD: Well, my name is Sandra Burn Boyd, and Harry was my great uncle. You know, I keep thinking about his mother, my great-grandmother, Febb.

BLOCK: Febb was a widow running the family farm. She was college educated, a voracious newspaper reader, a strong supporter of women's suffrage. As Sandra Boyd tells it, Febb was worried.

BURN BOYD: Her son's, you know, in Nashville fixing to be part of this huge vote that would make the decision about women. And she finally decided maybe she needed to nudge him just a little bit.

BLOCK: So she took a pencil and wrote Harry a six-page letter on lined paper.

BURN BOYD: Talking about weather and weddings and blah, blah, blah.

BLOCK: And then Febb got down to business, advising her son hurrah and vote for suffrage and don't keep them in doubt. Well, he listened. The day after the vote, Harry Burn told his fellow delegates, I knew that a mother's advice is always safest for a boy to follow. Years later, he said voting for women's suffrage was the moral thing to do.


HARRY T BURN: I think it was morally right. I thought it then. I still think it.

BLOCK: After his historic vote, newspapers had a field day churning out Harry Burn limericks. Here's a rendition of one that ran in the Knoxville Sentinel.

TYLER BOYD: (Reading) There is a young man from Niota who for precedent cares no iota he sprung a surprise when he flopped to the ayes and enraptured the feminine voter.

BLOCK: For Burn family descendants, that place in history is inspiring.

BOYD: He made an incredible impact on this entire country.

BLOCK: Sandra Boyd's son Tyler, a schoolteacher, has written a biography of his great-granduncle, Harry Burn.

BOYD: It really shows me that an ordinary citizen like Harry, you know, he didn't come from great wealth. He was an engaged citizen. He ran for office. And he had the opportunity to do something incredible. Niota and McMinn County and East Tennessee are all very, very proud of him.

BURN BOYD: Absolutely, very, very proud of that fact.

BLOCK: Not far from Niota in the heart of downtown Knoxville, they've honored Harry and Febb Burn with a bronze statue. The figure of Harry is seated with Febb standing behind, her hand resting on his shoulder. The memorial was commissioned by the Knoxville Suffrage Coalition. Wanda Sobieski is the coalition's president.

WANDA SOBIESKI: If people really, especially women, really understood how hard it was for these women to go through 72 years of struggle, of ridicule, having to basically beg for the vote from the men who control the legislatures, then maybe they'd be more thankful for what they have and more likely to go out and vote.

BLOCK: The coalition had planned a big suffrage centennial parade in Knoxville. But they've pushed that back till next year because of the coronavirus. Sobieski says they're calling it Centennial Plus.

SOBIESKI: You know, the suffragists waited 72 years to get the vote. I guess we can wait one more year to celebrate the centennial.

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News.

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