Mama knows best, 18 August, 2010

I’d like to use this space today to acknowledge a little adjustment to our country’s Constitution that occurred 90-years ago today: the ratification of the 19th Amendment.  For those not immediately familiar, that’s the one whose key phrase reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Women’s suffrage took a long time to come about (a good 70-plus-years, depending on when one starts counting), but come about it finally did.  After frittering away endless hours on pressing concerns such as prohibiting the sale & distribution of liquor, legislators finally got themselves sufficiently motivated to give women the right to vote. Not surprisingly, one of the main places where the idea got stuck and languished for years was – wait for it – the US Senate. (That wasn’t too difficult to guess, was it??)

Though the amendment had been proposed in Congress in the summer of 1919, for various slumbering reasons it took some time to finally get moving. Back then we only had 48 states, 3/4-ers of whose legislative bodies had to ratify the amendment before it could become law. By the summer of 1920, 35 states had ratified the amendment when the vote came due in the 36th – Tennessee.  A special session of the state’s congress was called on August 18th, and after much haggling the votes were cast: 48-for to 48-against.

This was quite an impasse, and things weren’t looking good for the ladies. From today’s vantage it’s difficult to imagine, but it’s important to recall that the prospects of suffrage for 51% (yes, fifty-one, in other words: the majority) of the country’s population were in the hands of—a room full of white males. (You may think me snide, but I can’t help observe that little has changed in the ensuing years)  The logjam was finally broken when one young senator, the 24-year-old Harry T. Burn, suddenly changed his vote.  Burn, who initially had been opposed to the measure, flipped his thumb upwards instead of down and cast the decisive “yes”—Tennessee had ratified the amendment, and eight days later it was accepted as federal law.

So what happened?  Why did young Harry T. Burn change his mind?  On the senate floor that day he held a copy of a letter written days before by Mrs. J.L. Burn—Harry’s mother.  The letter read,

Dear Son: Hurrah and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt! I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the “rat” in ratification. Your mother.

Later, Burn’s explained the reason for his switcheroo, famously stating, “A good boy always does what his mother tells him to do.”

While I’m certain that such reasoning could be disastrous (not least because were it followed to its end I would be a very, very wicked boy indeed), in this case it’s difficult to argue with Harry.  So to Mr. Burns – and especially his mother – a big thank you is in order.  Sometimes Mama really does know what’s best.

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