Susan B. Anthony, Republicans, and a Mother's Letter: The 19th Amendment's Road to Ratification

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Yesterday, we marked the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Ninety-three years later, it’s easy to forget the long fight for the amendment—a struggle that spanned decades and ended with a mother’s last minute letter to her Republican son in the Tennessee legislature.

19th Amendment
Image courtesy RNC

The 19th Amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1878 by Republican Senator Aaron A. Sargent. He was a friend of Susan B. Anthony—another proud Republican—who had drafted the amendment with fellow suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

The Amendment languished in Congress for decades until 1919. In the 1918 election, Republicans won control of both chambers, and the next year the amendment passed both the House and the Senate, sending it to the states for ratification.

 In August of 1920, ratification hinged on the state of Tennessee, where the legislature was sharply divided. When the amendment finally came up for a vote, supporters were dismayed because they expected it to fail. The motion to table the amendment had just been defeated in a 48-48 tie. The legislature was gridlocked.

 But no one expected that the 24-year-old Republican legislator Harry Burn was going to have a change of heart. Despite previously expressing his opposition, he voted “aye” for ratification, attributing his vote to a letter he had received his mother.

“Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt,” she wrote. “I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet…. [B]e a good boy and help Mrs. [Carrie Chapman] Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”

Burn later explained his vote in a speech: “I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify….I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

Women’s right to vote was won by the decades-long determination of pioneering suffragists. It was supported along the way by forward-looking Republicans. But no one can diminish the importance of that one young Tennessee Republican—and his strong-willed mother whose note arrived at just the right moment in history.

(To learn more, read the History Channel’s “The Mother Who Saved Suffrage”)