Heeding mom, Tennessee lawmaker helped women gain the vote

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In this Aug. 19, 1920 photo made available by the Library of Congress, Alice Paul, chair of the National Woman's Party, unfurls a banner after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, at the NWP's headquarters in Washington. The womens suffrage movement in the United States is widely considered to have been launched at the Seneca Falls convention in New York state in 1848. At the time, many Southerners were wary of the movement because key leaders also were engaged in anti-slavery campaigning. (The Crowley Company/Library of Congress via AP)

One hundred years ago this month, women in the United States were guaranteed the right to vote with ratification of the 19th Amendment — secured by a 24-year-old Tennessee legislator's decisive vote, cast at the bidding of his mother.

Harry T. Burn's surprise move set the stage for decades of slow but steady advances for American women in electoral politics. Two years ago, a record number of women were elected to Congress. On Tuesday, Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden selected Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate — making her the first Black woman on a major party’s presidential ticket.

Burn, from the small town of Niota in eastern Tennessee, joined the Legislature in 1918 as its youngest member. The following year, Congress approved the 19th Amendment, touching off the battle to win ratification by the legislatures of 36 of the 48 states.

The process moved quickly at first: By March 1920, 35 states had ratified, while eight states, mostly Southern, had rejected the amendment. Of the states yet to vote, Tennessee was the only one where ratification was considered possible under prevailing political conditions.

So all eyes turned to its Legislature, where lawmakers had the power to grant the women’s suffrage movement a victory it had sought for more than 70 years or deal it a painful setback.

At that time, women in more than half the states could vote in presidential elections. But they had no statewide voting rights throughout the South and several other states.

Thousands of activists on both sides of the debate poured into Nashville ahead of the special session. The posh Hermitage Hotel became a hotbed of lobbying and political gossip.

The amendment was approved 25-4 in the state Senate and sent to the House, where sentiment was divided as its turn to vote came on Aug. 18, 1920.