Thank you, Harry Burn!
In 1971, at the urging of Bella Abzug, the US Congress designated August 26th as “Women’s Equality Day,” marking the anniversary of the historic passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, finally granting women the right to vote and ending a determined non-violent campaign that lasted over seventy years and involved the actions of tens of thousands men and women.
On May 21, 1919 the House of Representatives passed the Amendment; the Senate followed suit on June 4, 1919. The fight then shifted to the states. By mid-summer of 1920, thirty-five of the needed thirty-six states had ratified the amendment, with the last hope for passage resting on the slender shoulders of twenty-four year old Harry Burn from McKinn County. Harry Burn was the youngest man ever elected to the State Legislature in Tennessee. A professed anti-suffragist, he had planned to vote against the measure. The legislators who were in favor of passage wore yellow roses in their lapels, while the anti-suffragists wore red. Harry proudly sported a red rose in his lapel pocket, and took his seat on that momentous late-summer day. But Harry was also a devoted son of a pro-suffrage mother, whose influence (we will find) was not to be denied. Earlier she had slipped him a note, which he carried in his breast pocket with a last-minute plea for him to “Vote for suffrage, and don’t keep them in doubt… Don’t forget to be a good boy.” At the last minute, as the historic vote was being tallied, Harry decided to listen to his mother, and, much to the consternation of his anti-suffrage colleagues, he changed his vote from nay to aye. The measure passed, the Amendment was ratified, and seventy-two years of steadfast persistence was successful at last.
When Harry was later asked why he suddenly changed his mind her replied, “I knew that a mother’s advice is always the safest for a boy to follow.” But whatever his reason, Harry Burn will be forever enshrined as one of the saviors of the movement. (For the full story of Harry Burn, log onto www.teachamericanhistory.org.)
So, don’t forget to celebrate, and even more important, don’t forget to exercise that hard-won right on Election Day this fall. Happy Women’s Equality Day!