In honor of Women’s History Month, the Teamsters look back at the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote:
This year marks the 97th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The amendment grants voting rights to women.
Thirty-nine words changed the course of history.
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
The passage of the 19th Amendment was the end result of a long, hard struggle that began at a tea party in 1848. Five women in Waterloo, N.Y., were discussing the indignities and hardships placed on women, such as not having the right to vote, own property or enter a profession. The more they talked, the more they wanted a change. By the end of the afternoon, Jane Hunt, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Mary Ann McClintock and Martha Wright had organized the first women’s rights convention. They sent a notice to the Seneca County Courier that invited all women to attend the event.
Six days later, the convention took place at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, N.Y., with more than 300 participants. Although the convention was targeted to women, men were not turned away. As a result, 42 men were part of the historic two-day program.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote and read a “Declaration of Sentiments,” symbolically modeled on the Declaration of Independence, to the crowd. The document simultaneously shocked and inspired the attendees, as it was the first time anyone had put into words what many had been feeling for years.
It certainly angered and frightened the male leaders of the community, who began attacking the unseemly ideas from the “ill-advised” gathering even before the conference ended.
Road to Suffrage
The next 72 years on the road to suffrage for women would be filled with great triumphs and bitter disappointments. It would bring together some of the greatest minds, most eloquent writers and savvy political activists ever seen—all women.
The movement, taking so long to reach its goal, became multi-generational. Babies taken to marches and rallies in their prams grew up to carry the banners in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers.
And, as with all movements to bring about social justice, it showcased some of the uglier sides of human nature as well. Women were harassed, arrested, beaten, and shunned by friends, family and their churches for making the choice to be a “suffragette.” Suffragette leaders were branded as cold, bitter, unattractive women who were not “normal.”
Racial tensions were heightened as some white women, particularly in the south, did not want to be associated with black women also seeking the vote. Black women formed their own successful suffrage organizations, but were disillusioned with a call to sisterhood that did not include all the members of the family. Sojourner Truth, a lecturer and former slave, expressed the sentiment best when she delivered her “Ain’t I a Woman too?” speech to activists across the country.
There were also political battles within the movement itself. Some believed a state by state approach would work best; others wanted attention focused at the national level. Leaders like Carrie Chapman Catt felt it was important to remain dignified and reasonable, biding time and working within the male dominated system to bring about change. Younger members like Alice Paul wanted to implement radical actions learned from militant British suffragette leaders like Emmeline Pankhurst. In the end, all of the approaches were needed to gain victory.
The final days of the right to vote saga played out with more drama and suspense than an old Hollywood movie.
Support was split on a national level; the amendment allowing women to vote had been introduced every year for 42 years before gaining the two-thirds majority needed to pass it; Thirty-five states had ratified the amendment to the Constitution, but the women knew if they did not get a “perfect 36” majority of states to ratify it, the bill would languish and die.
Tennessee was to be the 36th state to vote on ratification. In August of 1920, all sides converged on Nashville to lobby for their side. Each side took up a symbol: Suffragettes and legislators on their side wore yellow roses. Anti-suffrage members countered with red roses. It looked very close.
On the day of the vote, August 18, the Suffragettes were worried. The “by the roses” count, showed a loss: 47 yellow, 49 red. But, on the first roll call Representative Banks Turner switched to the yellow roses, deadlocking the vote at 48-48.
Wilted roses and frayed nerves abounded when the third vote was finally called. The last to vote was Harry Burn, at 24, the youngest member in the legislature. He stood up—with his red rose prominent and a crumpled paper in his pocket—and voted for the amendment. The chamber went wild.
The anti-suffrage members chased him from the room and up three floors screaming about his betrayal. He had to climb out a third floor window, walk a ledge and crawl into the Capital attic and hide to save himself. Later he explained that he received a telegram from his mother just as he was to vote. It urged him to “do the right thing” and vote for the amendment.
After decades of work, patience and courage, the last scene was a battle of conscience between a man and his mother. She won.
Most women today have little knowledge of the effort it took to bring the vote to women. Few recognize the names of the women who fought so hard for a cause that benefits them now.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, Mary Terrell Church, Lucy Burns, Victoria Woodhull, Ida B. Wells are just a few of the many. And, of course, Febb Ensminger Burn. She was Harry’s mom.
They are worth remembering.