Monday, August 10, 2020

Suffrage in Tennessee

written by Debie Oeser Cox

Many people know the popular story of how the Tennessee Legislature passed the resolution on Aug. 18, 1920, to approve woman's suffrage. Tennessee was the 36th and last state needed to ratify the amendment. On August 26, 1920, The Amendment was adopted to the Constitution of the United States, giving women the right to vote.

The final vote was cast in the Tennessee House, by Representative Harry T. Burn, who was just 22 at the time. Initially, he favored the passage of the resolution but was apparently worn down by his colleagues and seemed to have changed his mind. As the vote came down to the wire there was a tie vote in the house of 48 to 48. Emotions were high and no one seemed ready to budge. Burn had not yet voted, instead twice making a motion to table the resolution. In the end, Burn voted "Aye", breaking the tie. He was the hero or the villain of the day, depending on one's view of the passage. Burn revealed that he carried a letter from his mother in his pocket that read in part,

"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."
Young Mr. Burn was obviously raised in a home where his mother made up her own mind and spoke out about her beliefs.

Harry T. Burn, Tennessee House of Representatives from McMinn County

Our family celebrates a more personal story concerning the 19th Amendment. Our two daughters' paternal great grandfather was serving in the Tennessee Senate in that August of 1920. His name was Verner A. Bradley of Robertson County. Mr. Bradley had served in the House from 1903-1905, and 1907-1909 representing Robertson County. His Senate term was 1919-1921 for Robertson County. Years later he would serve once more 1941-1943 as a Representative from Robertson, Cheatham and Williamson Counties.

Tennessee Senators met on Friday, August 13, 1920, discuss the Constitution Amendment before their body, designated as Resolution No. 1. They were addressed by L. E. Gwin, Chairman of the Committee on Constitutional Amendments. Mr. Gwin advised that committee members believed that the Legislature a legal and moral right to ratify the resolution. The majority report was entered into the record.

"In view of the fact that all the members of this Senate are either Democrats or Republicans and that both nominees and platforms of their respective parties, State and National, have unequivocally declared for the ratification of this Amendment and that its final adoption is as certain as the occurence of the seasons, and the further fact that this Senate has heretofore taken a stand in favor of woman's suffrage by the enfranchisement as far as was legally possible of the womanhood of Tennessee, we have not considered it necessary to state the many good reasons that might be urged in favor of the adoption of the Amendment.

National woman's suffrage by Federal Amendment is at hand; it may be delayed, but it cannot be defeated; and we covet for Tennessee the signal honor of being the 36th and last State necessary to consumated this great reform.

The report was signed by Chairman Gwin and Senators, Copenhaver, Houk, Collins, Murrey, Coleman, Wikle, and Haston. 

A minority report was also submitted, signed by two members of the committee. The report gave the opinion that the Legislature had no authority to act on the resolution and that no action be taken. A vote was taken and the majority report was adopted. After further discussion, the resolution was adopted through a roll call vote of Ayes - 25, Noes - 4 and 2 - Present not voting. The first of the Aye votes was cast by Senator Verner A. Bradley. That first vote for woman's suffrage is remembered by few. The descendants of Senator Bradley are proud of the stand that he took. His oldest child Marguerite came of age soon after the Amendment was adopted. She said her father always insisted that she exercise her right to vote. Mr. Bradley was a civic leader for most of his life. He served in both county and state positions. He was married to Mary Susan Dowlen in 1898 and they were parents of two sons and three daughters. He died on October 3, 1964, at the age of 94.

Verner Adolphus Bradley, Tennessee State Senator from Robertson County

Sources: House and Senate Journal of the Extraordinary Session of the Sixty First General Assembly which convened at Nashville on Monday, August 9, 1920. Provided by the Tennessee State Libray and Archives, Legislative History Staff.

Biographical Directory of the Tennessee General Assembly, Volume III, 1901-1931

Records of the Cox and Bradley families.

Photo of Harry T. Burn from Tennessee Virtual Archive.

1 comment:

  1. Another fascinating article. Thanks for enriching my life with a little history of the city where my grandmother graduated high school (Fogg) and my mother was born and spent her early years.


Comments are welcome and will be moderated.