Oct 19 2017
11:48 am

I don't recall seeing anything about this on Knoxviews, so forgive me if it has already been posted.

The Suffrage Coalition is raising money for a statue to be placed in Knoxville honoring East Tennesseans Harry and Febb Burn, who played pivotal roles in gaining women's right to vote.

You can make a contribution and have your name or an honoree's name engraved on one of the bricks surrounding the statue. It will be placed downtown next to the East Tennessee History Center.

After the break, you can read the story of Harry Burn, who cast the deciding vote to allow the 19th Constitutional Amendment to be ratified, in case you don't know this tidbit of East Tennessee history.


The first public call for women to vote came in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. Not only unable to vote, women at that time had no right to their children (husbands could give them away), married women could not own property, they had no right to their own wages, and were generally, as far as the law was concerned, invisible.

After the Seneca Falls convention, decades of ceaseless effort went largely unrewarded until Congress finally passed the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in 1919. Ratification by thirty-six states was required to make it law. By the summer of 1920, thirty-five states had ratified, but unexpected losses in northern states made its future uncertain. The south was said to be “solidly anti-suffrage.”

In August of 1920 in a tumultuous special session of the legislature, Tennessee took up the question. Tempers flared and pressure from outsiders was almost unbearable. But in the end a twenty-four year old legislator from East Tennessee, Harry Burn, surprised the world with a last minute switch of his vote from “anti” to in favor of ratification. That set off a firestorm. The deciding factor for Harry Burn was a letter from his mother, Febb Burn, who urged him to be a “good boy” and vote for suffrage.

The story is actually quite dramatic. Only days were left in the effort to get the amendment ratified. Tennessee was the last chance for women to get the right to vote. Hopes were not high. On the day of the vote, the legislature was deadlocked until Harry changed his vote. Here’s more detail from the coalition:

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.


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