In the pocket of Harry Burn, the youngest state representative, was a letter from his mother—a widowed, land-owning, non-voting taxpayer. She urged him to do the right thing, to vote for ratification. He listened, changing his earlier “Nay” vote to “Aye” and broke the gridlock. Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify women’s right to vote, sealing the three-quarter majority required to make the Amendment federal law.
Prior to the ratification, women and men had battled emotional, religious, financially-motivated, and political beliefs that women should be governed under the common law tradition of femme covert. A holdover from British rule, it meant all power and authority resided with men. A woman had no rights. Her role was to be silent and subservient. It was a fight that took seventy-two years and spanned four generations.
The campaign to change common law practice began in 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott convened a convention of 300 people in Seneca Falls, NY. Advancing the rights of women under a Declaration of Sentiments fashioned after the Declaration of Independence, they emphasized one key difference. The signers held “these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.” Resolutions demanded equal rights for women in marriage, education, religion, employment and “the sacred right to the elective franchise.” They wrote:
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her . . . He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God. He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.
It is a message with an increasingly familiar ring.
Susan B. Anthony joined the cause in 1851. The three women, considered founders of the woman suffrage movement, were not alive when the final battle was waged in Nashville. In the engrossing nonfiction, The Perfect 36, the authors describe a thorny path to victory that included bribes, threats, tapped telephones, lawsuits, “parliamentary shenanigans”, and lobbying efforts conducted in the Hospitality Suite of Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel where Tennessee-brewed Jack Daniel’s whiskey was available twenty-four hours a day. Yet despite the drama, the authors concluded that the summer of 1920 “must be counted as one of democracy’s finer triumphs.”
It is a triumph at risk.
When crowds, whipped into emotional fury, chant “send her back” or “lock her up” to women who have the courage to speak their truth and the confidence to try and make this country a safer, healthier, more just place to live, work and raise children, they are echoing the sentiments of those who believed women deserved no voice outside the home. They are sending all women “back” in action, if not law.
I say to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, “You are welcome here! And thank you.”
Come November 2020, I will vote with a yellow rose in mind and heart to keep the voices of women—all women regardless of national origin, color, race, religion, or sexual preference—in the public sphere. I urge others to do the same.
Patrick Dugan, Janann Sherman, Carol Lynn Yellin. The Perfect 36. 1998. Oakridge, TN. The Iris Publication Group.
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