Just one vote: How women got the vote

Ruth Rosen
Sunday July 23, 2017 - 12:18:00 PM

For days, the fate of health care for twenty-two million Americans depended on the vote of one Republican senator. Think about it: one person would have decided whether millions of Americans, including children, the disabled and the poor would continue to have access to health care. Just one vote.

This is not the first time in our history that a decision of such momentous importance has been decided by one legislator’s vote. Ever since the first women’s rights convention took place in 1848, Americans had been bitterly divided over woman’s suffrage. After seven decades of fierce campaigns, American suffragists finally convinced Congress to pass the 19th amendment on June 4th, 1919, which granted women full citizenship and gave them the right to vote. But after 35 states had ratified the amendment, pro-suffragists still needed one more state to ratify the amendment.

All eyes now turned to Tennessee. The leaders of both the pro-suffragist and anti-suffragist movements descended upon the legislature to lobby its members. The anti-suffrage liquor interests flooded the House and Senate with free booze, leaving the legislators dazed and drunk. Tennessee’s Senate quickly passed the amendment. In the House, however, furious argument and heated debate created a 48-48 deadlock. Just one person needed to change their vote give all American women the right to vote. 

Henry Burn had been the state’s youngest legislator. At first, he voted to table the amendment. On his lapel he pinned a red rose, the symbol of the anti-suffragist movement. But then, to everyone’s shock, the 24-year-old switched his vote and broke the tie. As he voted “Aye,” he held a letter written from his mother, Febb Burn of Niota, Tennessee: 

Dear Son: 

Hurry and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt...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 (a major leader of the pro-suffragist movement.) 

With lots of love, Mama. 

A farmer and journalist, Febb Burn had long been following the bitter debates over woman’s suffrage. Her son’s district was overwhelmingly against granting women the vote to women. Nevertheless, as she later told a reporter, “Suffrage has interested me for years.” After reading anti-suffrage speeches published in her son’s county, Mrs. Burn felt compelled to write him. “I sat down on [my] little chair on the front porch and penned a few lines to my son.” 

Outraged and stunned, her son’s colleagues attacked his honor and integrity, and accused him of political betrayal. In response, Burn wrote a personal statement which he entered into the House Journal, explaining why he had cast his vote for woman’s suffrage. "I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification." 

We needed only one Henry Burn to save health care for twenty-two million Americans. Every one of the fifty Senate Republicans had a mother, like Febb Burn, who did her very best to bring him or her up to do the right thing, and to treat others with compassion and dignity. 

Senate Republicans, remember your mothers’ voices. Some day you may feel, as Henry Burn explained in his later years, that this one vote will be your greatest achievement: “I had always believed that women had an inherent right to vote. It was a logical attitude from my standpoint. My mother was a college woman. She could not vote…On that roll call, confronted with the fact that I was going to go on record for time and eternity on the merits of the question, I had to vote for ratification.” 

Just as his vote gave half the population the right to vote, one Republican senator might have preserved the health care for millions of Americans. Fortunately, more than one senator objected to repealing Obamacare, and three female senators immediately refused to repeal health care and replace it with nothing. 

Ruth Rosen, professor emeritus at the University of California and former columnist for the LA Times and SF Chronicle, is the author of The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America. 

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