Wiping his forehead with his already damp handkerchief, Harry Burn listened to the shouts from the crowds of people below as he hid from sight in the hot, stuffy attic. Hours earlier he had entered the State Capitol Building, never imagining that the events to follow would lead him to his present perch, high above the city of Nashville.
At 24 years of age, Harry was the youngest legislator in the House of Representatives, a distinction which earned him the nickname “Baby Burns.” The oldest of four children, Harry was from East Tennessee, where his widowed mother oversaw the family farm.
Harry made his way to his seat on the House floor, a red rose pinned to his coat lapel symbolizing the direction he intended to vote. Two previous attempts had resulted in a tie, 48 – 48 and after much heated debate, this would be the last vote before the issue was tabled. But as he waited for roll call, Harry pulled a letter from his pocket, which he had received just that morning and pondered the words his mother had written. When his name was called his quietly uttered ‘Aye” shocked everyone present and with just one syllable, Harry’s vote broke the tie. Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, finally giving women the right to vote.
It had taken over 7 decades of struggle to reach this moment, including 6 previous denials from Congress and 35 states who ratified the proposal before Tennessee. It almost didn’t happen. Except Harry Burn considered his mother’s admonition to ‘be a good boy’ and weighed her advice against those who had threatened to end his political career.
Several months later Harry would win reelection, and his mother, Phoebe “Febb” Burn cast a ballot for the very first time at the age of 47. In the years to come Harry would introduce many other bills that would remove restrictions and polling taxes and make it easier for everyone to vote. Febb’s actual letter is preserved in the Knox County Library and there is also a statue of the mother and son located in Knoxville, Tennessee to commemorate the moment that changed the course of American history.
Harry’s historic vote took place exactly 100 years ago in August 1920 and as we approach the election this November, a century later, your vote is just as important. The suffragette’s fight was known as the “War of The Roses” and throughout history there have been other battles fought to obtain and keep our liberties and freedoms. Voting is not only a privilege, but a duty and an honor. Every vote truly does make a difference.
By R Trauger