August 19, 1920: Suffragists Show Appreciation to Supportive Legislators After Historic Victory

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


Intent on assuring that yesterday’s historic victory does not become muddled by a vote to revoke approval, suffragists spent today keeping constant company with every Tennessee legislator who voted to ratify the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.

When not being fanned on the House floor, the legislators were entertained by being taken to luncheons, on country drives, or to motion picture theaters.

Alice Paul drinking a grape-juice toast to victory yesterday in front of her 36-star ratification flag.
Alice Paul drinking a grape-juice toast to victory yesterday in front of her 36-star ratification flag.

The anti-suffrage Speaker of the House is determined to have the ratification vote reversed, and could call for reconsideration without a moment’s notice at any time the House is in session for up to two days after the resolution’s passage. Since a single vote constituted the margin of victory that gave the 19th Amendment the 36th and final State ratification needed to become part of the Constitution, it’s essential that every House member who voted “Aye” yesterday be present and still support woman suffrage should a vote to reconsider the resolution suddenly be called. But the “Votes for Women” advocates who packed the galleries from the beginning to the end of the session today were relieved to find that nothing other than routine business was done.

Tonight, however, House Speaker Seth Walker announced that 47 members of the House had signed pledges to vote to reconsider ratification. Since that’s the same number who voted against suffrage in the initial 49-47 roll call, it means that no “anti” has converted to the pro-suffrage side, so no pro-suffrage legislator can be allowed to defect if the razor-thin majority for suffrage is to be maintained for one more day. Three legislators were absent for the original vote and may – or may not – arrive here tomorrow. If they do take their seats, it is hoped the reports that two of the three are pro-suffrage are true. But presumptions about how a legislator will vote have been proven wrong in a number of cases, so their arrival would only add to the uncertainly.

Though the legality of a State reversing its ratification is highly questionable, and has never been recognized by Congress, such a rescission vote would clearly complicate what’s now a straightforward, purely ceremonial process. The Governor must certify that Tennessee has legally ratified, then send the certification on to the U.S. Secretary of State, then Secretary Colby will officially proclaim that the 19th Amendment is a part of the United States Constitution.

Article Five of the Constitution does not require the Secretary of State to issue a proclamation of ratification, so the Susan B. Anthony Amendment fulfilled all the requirements for inclusion yesterday by having been passed by 2/3 of both the U.S. Senate and House, and 3/4 of the State legislatures. But the symbolism of the Secretary of State, representing the United States Government, proclaiming that woman suffrage is the law of the land would be quite powerful, and go a long way toward ending resistance to women registering to vote and voting in November, even if there are court challenges to Tennessee’s ratification.

It’s been quite a day for Tennessee Representative Harry Burn, whose unexpected and last-minute vote switch provided the margin of victory yesterday. While suffrage forces have been honoring and praising him, anti-suffragists have been charging that bribery was involved in his surprise vote, and both the Nashville Banner and Nashville Tennessean printed affidavits today alleging that bribes were offered Burn just before his final vote. A Grand Jury, already seated to investigate claims of “improper influences” on the State’s legislators in regard to the suffrage campaign, is now investigating these new charges, though suffragists don’t take them seriously, and even some anti-suffragists seem skeptical.

Harry Burn himself told why he voted the way he did by writing in an open letter to the Tennessee House today:

I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification. I desired that my party in both State and nation might say that it was a Republican from the mountains of East Tennessee who made national woman suffrage possible at this late date.

It was truly appropriate that a Republican cast the final vote needed to ratify, because suffrage and Republicans have had a close relationship for some time. When Susan B. Anthony cast her “illegal” ballot in 1872, she wrote to Elizabeth Cady Stanton that night saying she voted the Republican ticket. The Anthony Amendment itself, ratified yesterday, was first introduced into Congress by Senator Aaron Sargent, Republican of California, in 1878.

When the House passed the Anthony Amendment last year, the vote was 104 Democrats in favor and 70 opposed (59.8% support), but 200 Republicans in favor and just 19 opposed (91.3% support). In the Senate it was 20 Democrats in favor and 17 opposed (54% support), but 36 Republicans in favor and 8 against (81.8% support). In both cases it was Republicans who provided the votes necessary for the 2/3 majority required.

Of the 36 States that ratified, 26 (72.2%) had Republican legislatures, 7 were Democratic (19.4%) and in 3 (8.3%), one party dominated the House and the other the Senate. Of the 9 States which rejected ratification, 8 were Democratic. Three States never voted on ratification. And, of course, yesterday, the initial vote in the Tennessee House was 33 Democrats in favor and 36 opposed (47.8% support), while 16 Republicans voted in favor and 11 were opposed (59.2% support), Harry Burn and his party providing the votes needed for a simple 49-47 majority. (The final count was actually 50-46 because the anti-suffrage Speaker changed his vote so that he would be allowed to call up the ratification resolution again for the purpose of reversing the vote of approval.)

While some die-hard anti-suffragists fight on, some are conceding graciously. Even The New York Times, which has been second to none in its opposition to woman suffrage, today said that: ” … there is no doubt that the vote of yesterday will be almost universally taken as ending the long struggle for woman suffrage in this country.” They noted that women had already won full voting rights in many States, and were eligible to vote for President in even more. So, 68 years after their first condescending and dismissive editorial on the subject, they admitted: “A movement gathering such momentum was bound to succeed in time.”

Proponents were much more enthusiastic in their reactions, and congratulations are pouring in from around the world. Countess Maria Loschi of Rome, Italy cabled:

American women have already good will, splendid preparation, and great power. May their final enfranchisement be blessed. May all roads be open to this new wonderful army. Be united, dear friends, especially after this deserved victory, and accept greetings from an Italian woman who has known, loved and appreciated you.

Madame De Witt Schlumberger said: “Enthusiastic congratulations from the French Union for Woman Suffrage to their American sisters upon their enfranchisement so well merited.”

Ellen Key of Sweden wrote: “Sisters, use your enfranchisement in the noble spirit which made Susan B. Anthony great in the struggle.”

Governor Roberts, who called the special session so that ratification could occur, received telegrams from many prominent suffrage supporters around the country, among them President Wilson: “If you deem it proper, will you not be kind enough to convey to the Legislature of Tennessee my sincerest congratulations on their concurrence in the Nineteenth Amendment? I believe that in sending this message I am, in fact, speaking the voice of the country at large.”

But after one final night of strategy sessions, with some time out for reading congratulatory telegrams and newspaper stories with long-sought headlines proclaiming “Votes for Women!” it will be back to work early tomorrow for all suffrage organizations to assure that yesterday’s final victory is, indeed, final.

Support eh ERA banner