Pop quiz: Who said the following?
She’s a ‘nasty woman.” A “crazed, crying lowlife.” A “dog” who has the “face of a pig.” “Low I.Q.” She is “ugly both inside and out!” A “monster!”
Okay, enough already. I don’t even have to tell you who said all those things. You’ve no doubt guessed correctly.
Sexism in America, like our country’s racism, never went away. But it also never had such a vocal champion in the Oval Office. For centuries, women have taken abuse from men. For much of that time they had few rights and legal remedies to help battle oppression. Sexism and abuse continues, as we see all too well in the actions of the current president, but today women have more rights, more ways to combat mistreatment, and a power that is already being seen across the country. Winning the right to vote in 1920 gave women the opportunity to play a significant role in addressing sexism, and they are taking advantage of that power to push against one of today’s chief threats to democracy.
This year we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of that milestone. I was enjoying a blogging hiatus in August on the exact date of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. However, I wanted to highlight this important achievement as part of my October series on how history and the places where history happened can help us understand the issues we are facing in 2020 as a country and a democracy.
This story, like so many I share, has personal connections.
The fight to gain the franchise for women began in earnest in 1848 at the famous women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York. The vote was only one of twelve rights those gathered together by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton called for in their Declaration of Sentiments. The vote soon became a keystone of the women’s rights movement, but it took over seven decades of never-ending work before Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment to the constitution in 1919.
Of course constitutional amendments have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states before becoming law. In 1920, there were 48 states, and the vote for ratification came down to Tennessee. If the state legislature ratified the amendment, Tennessee would be the 36th state to do so and women would be granted the right to vote. If not, then the amendment would likely die.
This story revolves around a hotel in downtown Nashville, and the role it played in the fight over ratification.
The Hermitage Hotel today is a beautifully restored architectural gem. It was just named the 2020 Historic Hotel of the Year by Historic Hotels of America. The Hermitage not only has stunning architectural spaces, but it features restaurants focused on sustainable and local agriculture, and it may have the most famous men’s restroom in the country, thanks to the art deco stylings and several country music videos!
I have stayed at the Hermitage, most recently when I was speaking for a conference at another Nashville landmark, the Downtown Presbyterian Church. Both represent places in our history where a practice of hope triumphed over despair.
In 1920, sitting just across the street from the landmark William Strickland-designed state capitol, the Hermitage was a hotbed of lobbyists, plying legislators with drink and probably much more as they debated ratification.
The twenty-four-year-old Republican Harry T. Burn was a first-term legislator from East Tennessee worried about re-election. He sought to avoid having to make a decisive decision on ratification, and twice voted to table the amendment after heated debate on a hot, muggy August day. But the moves to table the amendment, which would effectively kill it, ended up in a 48-48 tie. The House Speaker, an adamant opponent to women’s suffrage, called for an up-or-down vote.
Burn was in a quandary. He wanted to avoid having to go on the record, in order to help ensure his re-election. Yet he believed in the right of women to vote. More importantly, he had a letter in his pocket that he’d just received from his mother, Febb Burn, a strong-willed widow of a farmer who followed the women’s suffrage debate from their family home by reading four newspapers and a dozen magazines. Mrs. Burn would later tell a reporter, “Suffrage has interested me for years.” True to her strong feelings on the topic, she added that she liked the militants in the movement just as much as she did other, more conciliatory suffragists advocating for the cause.
But after having read a barrage of bitter speeches opposing giving women the franchise and realizing that her son’s constituents in McMinn County were fiercely in opposition to women’s suffrage, Mrs. Burn felt compelled to force the issue. She sat down in her front porch chair and penned a few lines in one of the most famous — or at least most effective — mother-to-son letters in history. She wrote:
“Dear Son, … Hurrah and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt. … I’ve been waiting to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet…. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. (Carrie Chapman) Catt with her “Rats.” Is she the one that put rat in ratification, Ha! With lots of love, Mama.”
Burn thought about that letter and the fact that all of the illiterate, uninformed male tenants on the family farm could vote; yet the intelligent, feisty, college educated widow and successful farmer who was his mother could not.
The pro-ratification lobbyists at the Hermitage, wearing yellow roses to signify their position, had almost lost hope. Burn, who wore a red rose on his jacket lapel, the symbol of the anti-ratification crowd, was not expected to change his vote. Yet seven decades of hope-filled action led a mother in rural Tennessee to call on her son to “be a good boy” and make the moral choice.
And he did.
Newspaper accounts of the day report that the “antis” were up-in-arms over Burn’s change of heart to the “rats”. He dropped his red rose to the floor and affixed a yellow one, offered by a fellow legislator, to his lapel. Burn was accused of everything from accepting bribes to being a “traitor to manhood’s honor.” To defend himself, Burn penned a short note for the House Record that gave the reason for his changed vote.
“I believe in full suffrage as a right” he states at the beginning, and then connects that with what he sees as the moral and legal right to ratify. Burns also saw the moment as one made for history, appreciating the fact “that an opportunity such as seldom comes to a mortal man to free seventeen million women from political slavery was mine.” Burn wanted to bring glory to his party with his vote.
And perhaps, with a conviction that makes this political decision such a warm and personal story, he notes, “I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”
Harry Burn added a comment about the Anglo-Saxon purity of East Tennessee Republicans, showing that he was a man of his time. Nonetheless, he stepped beyond some of the constraints of his age to free white women from “political slavery.” Many African American women would have to wait for the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to take advantage of the franchise.
Burn reportedly stopped by the Hermitage Hotel to express his appreciation to the suffragists who had held out hope against despair, before moving to another hotel where he sought to escape anti-attacks and public abuse. The good news moral of the story is that despite a strong lobbying effort by the anti-suffragists to defeat him, Burn was re-elected later that fall.
Here we are, 100 years later, and women are now leading the fight against those who would kill our democracy and end the right of women to control their own bodies. The numbers are strong, but the shift of men in their support from Trump to Biden showcases one of the ongoing challenges America has with sexism in politics. As William Galston writes for the Brookings Institution:
“If the 2020 election results confirm these survey findings, we will have to rethink the role of gender in recent elections. One hypothesis has been that Trump’s often crude and sexist behavior turned women off from Trump early on. And there’s no doubt that that has been part of the answer to this puzzle. But when we look back at these two races, the key point may not be women’s disaffection from Trump in 2020, but rather men’s antipathy to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Women in politics and journalism report high levels of threats against them; many containing violent sexual references. Just this week law authorities in Michigan arrested 13 people in a plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic Governor of Michigan and one of only 9 female Governors.
In focusing on the dynamics of race and class in the emergence of populism, have we underestimated the continuing power of sexism directed against women who refuse to conform to the gender script?”
My answer to Galston’s question is “absolutely.” Women may have had the vote for 100 years, but sexism remains an issue in our democracy, just as it was when Harry Burn was accused of being a “traitor to manhood’s honor.” Maintaining a traditional hierarchy and control over women is often seen as much more important than maintaining a democracy.
Places like the Hermitage Hotel help tell the story of our history, both personal and collectively. They provide touchstones to the memories that flow through the brick, mortar, wood, and landscapes. And they support hope that is grounded in memory. A hope for religious liberty as at Downtown Presbyterian, or a hope for universal suffrage, as at the Hermitage. In the end, Harry Burn followed his mother’s advice and sided with the ratification forces headquartered at the Hermitage Hotel. And millions of women now honor Febb Burn for her feistiness and courage to speak out then, as millions are doing today by pushing — and voting — to keep our democracy alive.
(NOTE: During October, I am writing articles on how history and the places where history happened can help us understand the issues we are facing as a country and a democracy. Besides this story of sexism and a woman’s right to vote, you can find posts on the use of misinformation, wrongful imprisonment and racial violence, religious liberty, voter suppression, and revealed history, in addition to a book review on how democracies die, by clicking on the links.)
More to come…
Image of the Hermitage Hotel Lobby from Historic Hotels of America and Hermitage Hotel.