August 12, 2010
The National Archives Celebrates the 90th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment
Washington, DC…The following is a document alert -- part of a program sponsored by the National Archives to notify the media of documents in the holdings of the National Archives that are relevant to national holidays, anniversaries or current events. This program is based on original records from the National Archives, its 13 Presidential libraries and 14 regional facilities, and is designed to offer the media an historical perspective on events that occur periodically and to highlight historical antecedents to current political or diplomatic initiatives.
(The following is based on an article that appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Prologue magazine, the Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration. The text and high resolution images of the 19th Amendment can be found online). A petition to Congress for the right to vote, signed by Susan B. Anthony is also available online.
Pieces of History
The 19th Amendment Gives Women the Right to Vote
On a hot August day in 1920, Representative Harry Burn listened as the Tennessee House of Representatives debated an issue that had been simmering since well before the Civil War—woman suffrage.
For generations, long before 24-year-old Burn was born, the woman suffrage movement had as its goal an amendment to the U.S. Constitution allowing women the right to vote.
The movement had begun in 1848 at a women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, but it took 30 years to get the amendment introduced in Congress. Action on Capitol Hill was very slow. Until 1914, the Senate voted only once, turning it down, and the House did not vote at all.
Meanwhile, the suffragists took their fights to the states. Through legislative action or state amendment, the movement had some success. In the 1916 election, women could vote for presidential electors in 11 states. By 1920, even without the referendum, women would have been able to vote for presidential electors in 30 states.
Finally, in the spring of 1919, Congress passed the amendment and sent it the states for ratification. The States acted quickly, and by August 1920, 35 had approved it. In all but one of the remaining states, the amendment had either been rejected or had no hope of being approved.
With one additional state needed, the push for ratification focused on Tennessee. Supporters and opponents of the amendment, the press, and thousands of spectators flocked to Nashville to witness the proceedings. Carrie Chapman Catt, the latest in the long line of woman suffrage leaders that had included Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, was also there.
Tennessee's Senate had already approved it, but after several votes in the House, the issue was deadlocked, 48 to 48. As the debate continued, Burn opened a letter from his mother.
“Don't forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification,” mother Burn wrote. Harry had been counted among the opponents, but when the next vote was taken, Harry voted in favor of the amendment, and ratification was approved.
Thus, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote, was ratified on August 18, 1920, in time for women in all states to vote for President later that year.
The next day, Harry Burn explained his vote to angry opponents: “I believe in full suffrage as a right. I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify. I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”
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