August 26, 2010 is the 90th anniversary of the effective date of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the Constitution which guaranteed all American women the right to vote. The road to the 19th Amendment was a long and difficult struggle that took decades of legal efforts, agitation and protest. From the mid-19th century, generations of woman suffrage supporters fought and practiced civil disobedience to achieve what many Americans considered a radical change of the Constitution. The first introduction in Congress of a sufferage amendment occurred in 1878. See the National Archive image of the first Resolution at this link. Supporters pursued a strategy of passing suffrage acts in each state. Nine western states adopted woman suffrage legislation by 1912. Other supporters pursued legal strategies challenging male-only voting laws in the courts and non-legal tactics such as parades, silent vigils, and hunger strikes. They faced fierce resistance from opponents who heckled, jailed, and sometimes physically abused them. By 1916, almost all of the major suffrage organizations united behind the goal of a constitutional amendment. When New York adopted woman suffrage in 1917 and President Wilson changed his position to support an amendment in 1918, the political balance began to shift.
The final push for the Federal Suffrage Amendment came with the introduction of House Joint Resolution No. 1 on May 21, 1919. On June 4, 1919, Congress approved the woman’s suffrage amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. The House of Representatives voted 304-89 and the Senate 56-25 in favor of the amendment. Ratification the amendment by the states was by the closest of margins. Tennessee was the 36th state to ratify the amendment on August 18, 1920. Few remember, however, that the historic ratification occurred by just one single vote, that of Harry T. Burn, a lawyer who first opposed the suffrage movement. The General Assembly suffrage amendment vote was a 48-48 tie. Burn’s vote would defeat it and postpone national ratification at least another month until the Connecticut Legislature vote. Shortly before the historic legislative tally, Burn received a long letter from his mother who wrote: “I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy”. Burn changed his “nay” vote to “yea.” And the rest is history.
For more on the 19th Amendment, see the article at this link. More reading is available at the Brooklyn Law School Library which has in its collection Woman’s Suffrage by Constitutional Amendment by Henry St. George Tucker (Call # KF4895 .T83 2003). Additionally, the legal classic Woman Suffrage and Politics – The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement by Carrie Chapman Catt is part of the HeinOnline Legal Classic Library. Chapter XXIX of the online book is titled Tennessee and has more details of the Harry Burn story on pages 449 to 452.
Today, President Obama issued a Presidential Proclamation on Women’s Equality Day, 2010. The history of Women’s Equality Day goes back to 1971 when at the behest of Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY), the US Congress designated August 26 as “Women’s Equality Day.”