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Tennessee’s Woman Suffrage History Needs a Home of Her Own

Tennessee cast the final vote in one of the most important legislative battles in American History.

Never before or since has our democracy expanded to include 27 million new citizen votes by the sheer will and determination of the unrepresented. Tennessee not only played an important role, it delivered the final, crucial ratification that brought the 72-year struggle for women’s vote to victory – a victory deeply rooted in East Tennessee.

In one of the most raucous and heated legislative sessions on record, the state’s youngest legislator, State Representative Harry T. Burn, from East Tennessee, heeded the plea of his mother, Febb Burn, also from East Tennessee, and at the last minute switched from his intended anti-suffrage vote  to  vote  in  favor  of  ratification of the XIX legislature, and  with that  vote, 27 million women were enfranchised.


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That the crucial vote came from a Southern state was astounding. Southern women suffragists who won that success faced a daunting task to overcome more than a century of custom and law that relegated women (especially married women)  to legal non-existence.

Even most churches turned a deaf ear to the women’s concerns and defended women’s continued subjugation, still blaming them for the fall from the Garden of Eden. They were excluded from most publicly funded schools. They were ridiculed and excluded if they expressed an opinion of their own; “strong-minded women” were silenced and shunned.

With little financial means and little access to education or political power, Tennessee’s amazing suffragists achieved what most people believed to be the impossible.

Because of them, East Tennessee became the place where “Woman Suffrage Came of Age.”

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Join Us! Get Involved!

Together, the Suffrage Coalition established the first memorial in Tennessee honoring the extraordinary women who led the ratification effort for the XIX Amendment in this State: The Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial in the heart of downtown Knoxville

Together, we did what many believed impossible: erecting a second suffrage memorial a block away from the first. The Burn Memorial honors Febb Burn, the mother who wrote the now famous letter to her son, State Representative Harry T. Burn. That letter, delivered to him the morning of the Tennessee vote, led him to vote for the Amendment, breaking a tie and delivering Tennessee as the 36th and final state necessary for ratification of the XIX Amendment.

Together, we raised funds to digitize the Burn and French papers in the McClung Collection so they are now freely available online worldwide.

Together, through slideshows, literature, speaking engagements, public events, art, re-enactments, plays, musicals, and a variety of efforts, we brought many of these important stories into the limelight and gave Tennesseans a reason to be proud and an example to follow so that we can keep moving toward a “more perfect union.•

The Suffrage Museum is a project of the Suffrage Coalition, Inc., originally founded in 1995 as a special project of the East Tennessee Foundation, now a separate 501(c)(3). The Suffrage Coalition has worked for over a quarter century to locate and preserve the history of woman suffrage, especially in Tennessee.

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Why a Woman Suffrage Museum

The Suffrage Coalition has spent decades locating and preserving the history of Tennessee woman suffrage. The posters, postcards, letters, and other artifacts bring to life the passions on both sides.

In the presence of such artifacts, one can feel some of the sting of the ridicule and insults the suffragists often faced. Reading their own words, you can begin to understand what they endured against all odds and understand why they continued to work toward woman suffrage when there was no energy left and hope was dim. A dynamic Suffrage Museum will serve as a resource for teachers, students, researchers, and lifelong learners.

Properly constructed, a Suffrage Museum will serve as a meeting house for groups interested not only in woman suffrage but in social and political justice. It can demonstrate the many “Shades of Suffrage,” preserving the contributions of all people of all races and creeds and telling the story of the courageous men who stood up for woman suffrage.

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Why in Knoxville

We need to celebrate the sacrifice and achievements of all the suffragists in all the Grand Divisions, but the final victory story is deeply rooted in East Tennessee. Knoxville is the largest city in East Tennessee and is located just a short drive from the home of Febb Burn and her son State Rep. Harry T. Burn.

Knoxville has long been the unofficial “Capitol” of East Tennessee and sits conveniently at the intersection of two major interstates, near the most visited national park in the country. It was the lifelong home of Lizzie Crozier French, a devoted suffrage leader not only in East Tennessee but in all of Tennessee. Important relics such as the letter from Febb Burn to her son, State Rep. Harry

Burn, which caused him to switch his vote for ratification, resides in the McClung Collection in the heart of Knoxville. State Rep. Harry T. Bum’s legislative papers related to suffrage are housed there, along with Lizzie Crozier French’s papers. Not one, but two memorials honor the suffragists in the heart of downtown Knoxville as well. The flagship University of Tennessee is in Knoxville, and its scholars and academicians can serve as an ongoing resource as the process of locating and preserving this important history of woman suffrage continues.

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