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The Dignity of Voting Rights; or, How Not to Disappoint Your Mother

This week I received a surprise package of 5 copies of my new book, Women's Suffrage: The Complete Guide to the 19th Amendment, from my publisher.

My daughter Lillian helped me set up this photo with my purple-white-yellow suffrage flag (gifted to me by students!) draped in the background. The 36 stars on the flag represent the 36 states needed (at that time) to ratify the amendment. Here's a picture of Alice Paul unfurling the flag outside the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the National Woman's Party after Tennessee became the final state to ratify on August 18, 1920.

The story of the nail-biter final suffrage vote in Tennessee is a legendary tale of a young, 24-year-old junior state assemblyman who listened to his mother. The legend has it that in Henry's coat pocket when he cast his women's suffrage vote that day was a recent letter from his mother, Phoebe "Febb" Burn. Buried in-between news from back home about the rain and the farm, and a local wedding and a neighbor's broken arm, she brings up suffrage a couple of times, finally instructing him to "be a good boy" and do the right thing: 

“Dear Son, … Hurrah and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed Chandlers’ speech, it was very bitter. I’ve been waiting to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet…. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt with her “Rats.” Is she the one that put rat in ratification, Ha! No more from mama this time. With lots of love, Mama.” 

(You can see a scan of the original full-length letter here:

I love the anecdote, not only because that is the end of that part of the story: The 19th Amendment was certified to the U.S. Constitution just a few days later. But I love it because we want to believe that Henry listened to his mother. Suffragists had long pointed out the indignity of having to "ask" men, as the only eligible voters, to secure their rights as women. So maybe it adds a little dignity back to the story to think that it was a disenfranchised 46-year-old woman, Phoebe "Febb" Burn, who actually decided the final vote. It's interesting that she notes in her letter that she did not know how he stood on the issue - so they had not discussed it. And the record shows that Henry originally sided with the anti-suffragists and intended to vote "Nay." He twice voted to "table" the issue and avoid making a decision.

I have a son of about the same age and I certainly like to think that, in the end, Henry was swayed by the idea of having to report back to his mother on how he voted on the women's suffrage question. (She's wouldn't be mad, she'd just be very disappointed.) 

Phoebe King Ensminger Burn (1873-1945)


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