Jerry Kopel


Have you ever heard of Harry Burn? Some called him a "mama's boy". Others called him a hero.

Mark Sunday, Aug. 26th on your calendar. It's when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified eighty-one years ago, giving women the right to vote.

Of course, Colorado voters had approved suffrage for women in 1893. Three Republican women, Clara Cunningham, Carrie Holly, and Frances Klock, were elected to the Colorado House in 1894.

The 19th Amendment adopted by Congress June 4, 1919 stated: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

There were 48 states in the union. Three-fourths (36) were needed to amend the constitution. Voting is by each state's legislature, not directly by voters. In 1920, 35 of 48 states had ratified the amendment. Supporters wanted the 36th state in time for the 1920 elections.

By July 1920, eight states had voted "no" or stalled. Connecticut and Vermont governors would not call their legislatures into session. That left Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee. Supporters chose Tennessee.

Leader of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (the pros) was Carrie Chapman Catt. She came to Tennessee to help the fight. Opposition came from lobbyists for liquor, railroads and manufacturers, concerned that women's suffrage would lead to higher wages for women and enactment of child labor laws. Tennessee women who opposed suffrage (antis) called themselves the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Each group had a men's auxiliary.

Each side chose a flower. For the pros, it was a yellow rose. For the antis, it was the American Beauty Red Rose.

On August 7th, Tennessee Governor Albert Roberts called the Sixty-First Tennessee General Assembly, consisting of 99 House and 33 Senate members, into extraordinary session.

The state senate voted 25 to 4 for ratification August 13, but the House was more difficult. House Speaker Seth Walker opposed suffrage and no one had accurate tallies because of intense lobbying. A House committee passed the ratification resolution to the floor, 10 to 8.

Voting day in the House was August 18th. The galleries were filled with pros wearing white dresses with yellow sashes and antis with red roses. Ninety-six House members were present. A motion was made to ratify. Speaker Walker turned the gavel over to another House anti, went to the podium and moved to table the resolution. The motion tied, 48 to 48. Ratification was still alive.

Walker knew a tie would also kill the measure, so he called for an immediate vote on the original motion for ratification. One representative wearing a red rose was Harry Burn, age 24, the state's youngest legislator. He had voted to table, but now voted for ratification. The total was 49 to 47.

Then Walker did what no legislator should ever do. He panicked. Walker should have ascended to the speaker's chair and declared the motion lost because it needed a majority (50) of legislators ELECTED in order to pass. Instead, he changed his vote from "no" to "aye" to vote on the prevailing side and moved for reconsideration. Now the resolution had 50 votes and passage was lawful.

Why did Harry Burn, who represented an anti constituency, vote "yes"? Still wearing a red rose, he told reporters and gleeful pros the deciding factor was a letter from his mother:

"Dear Son: Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don't keep them in doubt. I noticed some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don't forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the 'rat' in ratification. Your Mother."

Gov. Roberts certified ratification Aug. 24 and U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby issued a proclamation of final ratification August 26th.

Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House of Representatives.

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