Tennessee provided the final approval of the federal Constitutional Amendment that gave millions of women the right to vote. Ending a 72 year battle for the most fundamental right of democracy, Tennessee, a southern state, against all odds, did the right thing.
The ultimate outcome of the highly controversial matter rested on the shoulders of the youngest member of the legislature, twenty-four year old Harry Burn from East Tennessee. He instinctively understood the fairness of allowing all citizens to vote, but he had decided that if the amendment appeared to be failing, he would vote against it to please his constituency. If the amendment appeared to be winning, he would vote for suffrage. Faced with a tie vote he switched sides and broke the tie, thereby making woman suffrage a reality, and infuriating his colleagues.
When called before the House Chamber to answer for his vote, he explained, as he pulled a handwritten letter from his mother out of his coat pocket, that his mother had urged him to do the right thing, vote for suffrage. That letter, to him, was justification enough.
This amazing story about a young man, his mother, and a simple, honest letter deserves a special place in Knoxville, East Tennessee’s capital.
An appropriate memorial to Harry Burn and his mother, Febb Burn, will ensure that this story is not lost and serve as an inspiration to those who must make difficult decisions under the glare of strongly held opposing opinions.
The Suffrage Coalition is a nonprofit group and a special project of the East Tennessee Foundation. The Coalition has worked diligently to digitize rare and important suffrage documents (including the letter from Febb Burn maintained in the McClung Collection) and worked closely with Harry Burn’s son and Alan LeQuire to design and promote the proposed Burn Memorial.
The Suffrage Coalition has preserved the important history of Tennessee’s role in the woman suffrage victory. In partnership with its many supporters, the Coalition established the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial on Market Square, provided funds for the digitization of suffrage documents, sponsored events honoring the history of woman’s suffrage campaign, and assisted with the collection and preservation of suffrage memorabilia.
You can read and explore local suffrage information at the Calvin McClung Historical Collection of the Knox County Public Library.
Or visit the Women in History section of the Tennessee State Archives.