A mother’s advice won victory for the 19th Amendment!

Phoebe Ensminger Burn & her son Harry

by M. Diane Bairstow

We are following the ratification of the 19th Amendment and considering women’s issues then and now. In May 1920 with only one state still needed, suffrage was at a standstill. In honor of Mother’s Day, we skip ahead to ratification, but this series will continue through August.

On August 18, 1920, Phoebe Ensminger Burn’s 24-year-old son Harry sat in the Tennessee Legislature with a red rose pinned to his lapel and a letter from his mother in his breast pocket. Passage of the 19th Amendment was on the agenda. It had sailed through the Senate, now it was up to the 96 members of the House. Harry was the youngest and most junior member.

Thousands of pro- and anti-suffrage activists flooded Nashville. The gallery of the legislature was packed. The room was hot and muggy and the atmosphere was tense. Supporters of the amendment wore yellow roses; anti-suffrage supporters wore red ones.

After hours of impassioned speeches and debate, House Speaker Seth Walker (wearing a red rose) proclaimed, “The hour has come. The battle has been fought and won, and I move . . . that the motion to concur in the Senate action (to pass suffrage) goes where it belongs—to the table.” The anti-suffrage faction was hoping to kill the motion by postponing it until the next legislative session, after the fall elections. Harry was hoping to table it also. His district was split, but beginning to turn against suffrage. He was up for re-election in the fall.

The roll was called, Harry voted “Aye” for tabling the bill. The result was 48-48. A tie automatically goes to the “Nay” vote. Speaker Walker called for a recount. Again Harry voted “Aye” and again the vote was deadlocked 48-48. The motion would go to a vote.

It’s easy to imagine young Harry, sitting in the stuffy chamber, a bead of sweat running down his brow, nervously twitching the corner of the letter he received just that morning. Among pages of family news, his mother inserted “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet.” She ended her missive with “… Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”

The roll was called again, and again Harry voted “Aye,” in favor of ratification. Anti-suffrage activists hounded Harry. Legend has it that he crept across a third-floor ledge and hid in the attic of the state capitol to avoid the angry mob. It is known that Harry had to change his hotel and hire a bodyguard for safety, and he was charged with trumped up accusations of bribery of which he was eventually acquitted. Despite all this, he won re-election in the fall and spent most of his life in public service.

His mother, known as Miss Febb, graduated from U.S. Grant University (now Tennessee Wesleyan University) in 1894 and was married that same year. The couple bought a farm in Niota where they raised their four children. Miss Febb taught school until she was widowed in 1916. She took over the farm, paid it off and made farming and child rearing her life’s work. Strong-willed and intelligent, she reportedly read 4 newspapers a day and subscribed to a dozen magazines.

On June 9, 2018, the Suffrage Coalition unveiled the Burn Memorial in Knoxville Tennessee honoring Miss Febb and her son Harry. The Tennessee Legislature also unanimously passed a resolution designating August 18 as Febb Burn day!

Harry T. Burn inserted a personal statement in the House Journal explaining his decision. It is a testament to courage, morality and filial devotion.

“I want to state that I changed my vote in favor of ratification first because I believe in full suffrage as a right; second, I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify; third, I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification; fourth, I appreciated the fact that an opportunity such as seldom comes to a mortal man to free seventeen million women from political slavery was mine; fifth, I desired that my party in both State and nation might say that it was a republican from the East mountains of Tennessee  . . . who made national woman suffrage possible at this date, not for personal glory but for the glory of his party.”