On June 4, 1919, the Susan B. Anthony Amendment came before the Senate. It was the fifth time that the proposal — first introduced in 1878, and already approved by the House of Representatives — had been put to senators; four months earlier, it had fallen short by just one vote. But on this day, the federal lawmakers voted 56 to 25, to pass the law, amend the constitution and establish women’s right to vote in the United States.
The passage of the 19th Amendment was a huge victory for the suffrage movement, the culmination of activism spanning nearly a century as women fought for a voice in the political system. But their work was unfinished. After Congress, the amendment moved to the 48 state legislatures, three-quarters of whom had to ratify it for it to become law. The race to 36 was on.
Suffragists had been laying the groundwork for this fight for decades. Many of their early victories had been statewide suffrage measures: In fact, women in 27 states, along with the Alaska Territory, had some form of voting rights before the 19th Amendment. Thanks to those campaigns, organizations such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) had chapters across the country, with organizers ready to rally support.
A flurry of early victories kicked off the summer of 1919, starting with Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin on June 10. But on July 24, in Georgia, the amendment met its first defeat. Alabama rejected the law that September; in the early days of 1920, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Mississippi did the same. (Mississippi would eventually be the last state to ratify the amendment — in 1984.)
By the summer of 1920, 35 states had voted to approve the amendment, and six had voted no. The nation waited on tenterhooks to see who might push the law over the finish line. Delaware rejected it in June. In July, Louisiana followed suit.
The campaign for women’s suffrage had been largely stymied in the South, so Tennessee was a somewhat unlikely contender to provide the amendment with the deciding vote. But the state had passed a limited suffrage measure in 1919, and its senate had already voted for the amendment, so in August all eyes turned to Tennessee. Suffragists including the NAWSA’s president, Carrie Chapman Catt, descended on Nashville, as did anti-suffragist factions. Both groups set up camp at the Hermitage Hotel, which was thronged by people wearing roses on their lapels: yellow for pro-suffrage, red for against.
On Aug. 18, 1920, state representatives started to vote. The margin was razor-thin. Then, it was Harry T. Burn’s turn.
Burn was a confirmed anti-suffragist, with a red rose on his lapel. But he had received a letter from his mother, Phoebe, who supported the amendment. “Be a good boy,” she wrote, and urged him to help Catt “put ‘rat’ in ratification.” Burn voted yes, shocking the legislature. “His change gave the suffragists the needed majority,” The New York Times reported, and the amendment ultimately passed, 50 to 46.
The victorious suffragists “launched an uproarious demonstration,” The Times said. “Women screamed frantically. Scores threw their arms around the necks of those nearest them and danced, so far as it was possible to do so, in the mass of humanity.” In all the hoopla, Burn sneaked out the back.
On Aug. 26, the Secretary of State certified the amendment’s ratification, enshrining its promise in the Constitution that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” It seems an indisputable idea now, a century later. But the suffrage movement’s victory was never promised.
You can follow the long road to ratification with our “Votes for Women” game, which can be downloaded here and printed. All you need to play are a die and a token for each player.