Monthly Archives: August 2011

Thank you, Harry Burn

The long slog toward equal rights for women began in 1792 when uppity Mary Wallstonecraft published her feminine treatise Vindication of the Rights of Women.

At the time the prevailing opinion was that women are “created to feel rather than to reason” and that any power they aspire to “must be obtained by [their] charms.” Mary, on the other hand, regarded “delicacy of sentiment” and “susceptibility of heart” as synonymous with “weakness.”

Her ideas gradually caught fire with other outspoken women, one of whom was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She drafted a Declaration of Sentiments stating that if women were to be bound by the government’s laws, they should be granted an equal say in its operations. This eventually led to the Equal Rights Convention of 1848, held in Seneca Falls, New York, and attended by 260 women and 40 men. It ended with 100 votes–cast by both sexes–approving a resolution that “secured to women equal participation with men in the various trades, professions, and commerce.”

The torrent of sarcasm and ridicule that poured forth from the pulpit and press didn’t discourage Stanton. “Just what I wanted,” said this 32-year-old warrior. “It will start women thinking, and men too. And when men and women think about a new question, the first step in progress is taken.” Sadly, when she died 55 years later, her life’s ambition–equality under the law–was still unfulfilled.

One hot August afternoon in 1820, the Tennessee House of Representatives–after much heated debate–reached a 48 to 48 deadlock concerning ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment that had recently passed in the State Senate. When the speaker moved to table the issue until the next legislative session, and thus practically assure its defeat, Harry Burn, a 24-year-old Republican lawmaker, thought about the letter that he carried in his pocket. “Dear Son,” his mother had written. “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt . . . Be a good boy.”

Harry had never wanted nor expected to cast the tie-breaking vote, especially since it might compromise his upcoming bid for reelection. But when the clerk called his name, he honored his mother by voting “aye” for women’s suffrage, and thus guaranteed that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by . . . any State on account of sex.” Thanks to Harry Burn, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified 91 years ago today, August 18, 1920.