It was 99 years ago today, 18 August 1920, that Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, and the United States officially recognized women’s right to vote. Today, we’re flying a “19th Amendment Victory Flag” to mark the occasion.
The road to passage was a long one. Universal suffrage for white men was, mostly, completed by the 1830s. The Women’s Rights Movement began in the decades before the Civil War and was organized nationally in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. In 1869, the Wyoming Territory extended voting rights to women and retained the provision when it became a state in 1890. Colorado (1893), Utah (1896) and Idaho (1896) followed suit. Still, by 1900, only these four states recognized voting rights for Women; a fact immortalized in the “Women’s Suffrage Flag” shown below.
This remained the status quo until 1910 when Washington State expanded voting rights, paving the way for other states to follow. In January 1917 the Women’s Rights Party, led by Alice Paul, began posting “Sentinels of Liberty” in front of the White House. These women stood in silence, holding flags and banners quoting President Wilson’s own words about liberty.
In return, these women were spat upon and subjected to ridicule, violence and arrest. But the movement was taking hold. In 1918 the arrests were ruled unconstitutional and Wilson declared his support for suffrage. The following year the Suffrage Amendment passed both houses of Congress with the required two-thirds vote and was sent to the states for ratification.
Thirty-five states had approved the amendment by March 22nd, 1920 but there the process stalled, just one state short of ratification. Worse, of the thirteen states remaining, eight states had already rejected the amendment, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi and Delaware. Things didn’t look promising when Tennessee took up the amendment on August 18th; most of the other southern states had voted to reject. With less than three months to go before the 1920 election, three states were called upon to hold special sessions to approve the amendment and refused. Only Tennessee’s legislature was still in session; this could be the last chance to ratify before the election. The Tennessee Senate passed the amendment.
Enter Phoebe King “Febb” Ensminger Burn, mother of Harry T. Burn who at 25 was the youngest member of the state legislature. Mrs. Burn, inspired by a political cartoon, wrote her son a long letter, “Hurrah and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt,” she wrote. “I’ve been watching to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet.” Referencing the cartoon, she continued, ”Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the RAT in ratification.” Harry had originally intended to vote for ratification, but after pressure from party leaders and receiving “misleading telegrams from his constituents” he joined the anti-suffrage side. This left the state legislators tied with 48 votes for ratification and 48 votes for rejection. When the Legislature met, Harry had his mother’s letter in his coat pocket. The first vote went as expected, 48 to 48. At least two votes to table the matter failed and the another vote was called on the merits, Harry addressed the assemblage. ”I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow,” he told his colleagues. He then changed his vote and the Women’s Suffrage Amendment became part of the constitution.
The 19th Amendment Victory flag is based on the flag of the National Women’s Party, which is a horizontal tricolor using the Party’s three official colors. The meanings of the color’s were explained in the Suffragist in December 1913.
“Purple is the color of loyalty, constancy to purpose, unswerving steadfastness to a cause. White, the emblem of purity, symbolizes the quality of our purpose; and gold, the color of light and life, is as the torch that guides our purpose, pure and unswerving.”
To create the victory flag, two rows containing 18 five-pointed stars each were added to represent the thirty-six states who had ratified the Amendment prior to passage. Every state has now ratified the 19th Amendment, the last being Mississippi on 22 March 1984.
- 19th Amendment accessed 18 August 2019
- Suffragette Flags accessed 18 August 2019
- Timeline of Women’s Suffrage in the United States accessed 18 August 2019
- Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution accessed 18 August 2019
- Harry T. Burn accessed 18 August 2019
- Editorial Observer; Women’s Suffrage: How Febb Burn and Her Son, Harry, Saved the Day accessed 18 August 2019
- The Colors of Women’s Suffrage accessed 18 August 2019
- Featured Image: ComicsTheUniverseAndEverything.net
- Woman Suffrage Flag
- Suffragette Flags