The 19th Amendment and the
Fight for Women’s Suffrage
On August 18, 1920, one man, Harry Burn, changed his vote in the Tennessee state legislature from a “Nay” vote to an “Aye” vote and the 19th Amendment enfranchising women was ratified by the 36th and final state. While it was one man’s vote at the urging of his mother: “don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the “rat” in ratification,” that officially secured the 19th amendment, it took years of hard work, dedication and sacrifice from a cadre of women to make the right to vote a reality. As we celebrate the 90th Anniversary of woman suffrage, we thank the men who ratified the amendment, but more importantly we pay a special tribute to the thousands of women who gave everything they had for the right to vote.
The fight for suffrage became an organized and public struggle following the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Prominent leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony began campaigning for the right to vote at state and federal levels. Years of hard work led to woman suffrage in a few states, and new leaders such as Carrie Chapman Catt and Harriet Stanton Blatch arose as the original leaders began to pass away.
In 1912 a 27 year old woman named Alice Paul journeyed to Washington to take over the Congressional campaign of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, supposedly to perform the symbolic duty of requesting that Congress introduce the19th amendment each year, and operating on a budget of $10. By March of 1913, an elaborate march on Washington, DC, was held and suffrage started to become a national issue. Months more of campaigning led to enfranchisement in a few more states, but after several deputations to the President, regular lobbying pressure on Congress, and efforts to defeat the Democrats – the party in power – in the 1914 and 1916 elections, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and other leaders of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) were disappointed with the progress made on suffrage. In 1917, the NWP took the bold step of picketing the White House for the first time in the history of the nation. The pickets were ignored at first, then arrested and released, then arrested and sentenced. Sentencing of the pickets led to outrage and charges of political imprisonment. Dissatisfied with their government, the prisoners went on hunger strikes and were force fed, to the growing shock of a nation fighting a war abroad and looking for peace and democracy at home.
Agitation of Congress and the White House by more than 100 women prisoners and even more pickets along with the national press focus on the issue of suffrage finally worked in favor of women, and the 19th Amendment was sent to the states to ratify. Tennessee did become the 36th state to ratify the Amendment which was officially added to the Constitution of the United States on August 26, 1920, but the state legislature is not the hero in this story, nor is Harry Burn. The heroes of suffrage are the generations of women and girls who gave their lives, their fortunes, their time, and their hearts to the cause. On this 90th Anniversary, remember the many women who made woman suffrage a reality for American women today.
For more, check out the museum’s digital collection.