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Women’s Equality Day

Today–August 26–the fierce fight for women’s right to vote was won ninety-three years ago in 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was added to the U. S. Constitution.  In 1971, Representative Bella Abzug, the broad-brimmed-hat wearing, provocatively outspoken, in-your-face fighter for human rights, got Congress to pass a joint resolution designating August 26th of each year as Women’s Equality Day.  This year, here and there across America, celebrations will take place, although none on the scale of the event in 1970 when 50,000 women marched in New York City, and a handful of feminists scaled the Statue of Liberty and hung a banner: “Women of the World Unite.”   I mark the day by remembering the generations of relentless suffragists. And pondering why it took so long (a 144 years after the Declaration of Independence), and that the victory was a close call, one vote!  By August 1920 thirty-five states had ratified the Nineteenth Amendment: Thirty-six were needed.  Tennessee was the most viable possibility. Forces on both sides gathered in hot, miserably muggy Nashville, the antis wore red roses, the pros wore yellow.  Carrie Chapman Catt led pro-lobbying efforts. Opposition forces denounced Catt and suffragists. The floor of the legislature echoed with impassioned speeches, underhanded tactics,  bitter accusations. The vote was tied 48-48. Then without fanfare Harry Burn, a young legislator wearing a red rose boutonniere, switched his vote to “aye!”  Victory!  

The next day, Burn explained his action: That morning he had received a message from his mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn–“Hurrah, and vote for suffrage. . . . be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt but the ‘rat’ in ratification.”  So he did because, he said: “I know that a mother’s advice is always the safest for her boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.” The photo is of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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