Robin Smith / August 19, 2019

Ever Heard of This War of the Roses?

The story of the Tennessee centennial of ratifying the 19th Amendment.

Back in 1989, the movie of this name featuring Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas portrayed a dark comedy between warring divorcing spouses whose last names were Rose. The original War of the Roses dates back to 1455 through 1485 in another civil war. The House of Lancaster, using the red rose for identification purposes, and the House of York, using the white rose as its emblem, were engaged in a three-decade bloody battle for the throne of England.

The War of the Roses that’s significant now for the purpose of commemoration relates to a dust up between the red and yellow roses worn by opponents and supporters, respectively, in Tennessee 99 years ago this week.

The Centennial of Woman Suffrage is commencing and will be celebrated through August 2020 to celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment empowering 27 million woman to participate in elections and the constitutional republic of America back in 1920. But the story didn’t start in 1920.

Follow the history to the pinnacle moments in Nashville, Tennessee.

Dating back to 1848, prior to the Civil War, the first Woman’s Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton presented “The Declaration of Sentiments,” crafted from the Declaration of Independence. The document was signed by 68 women and 32 men of the 300 in attendance and it cited several reasons for their movement. Among them were the fact that women had no voice in the laws created that governed their lives — specifically related to child custody in the case of the husband’s death as well as property rights of a female with a pursuit of access to education and professions such as medicine and law.

In 1850 at the First National Women’s Rights Convention, key abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth participated.

During the era of the Civil War, Suffragists worked to support abolition in hopes that the effort for women’s suffrage would be included in the ratification amendments addressing slavery and citizenship. Yet the so-called Reconstruction Amendments failed to include American women. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865. The 14th Amendment of 1868 entitles “all persons born or naturalized in the United States to citizenship and equal protection under the laws of the United States” … except American women. In 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified giving the vote to “all male citizens regardless of color or previous condition of servitude.” Still not women.

So, the struggle for women to have the right to vote continued. Susan B. Anthony illegally cast her ballot for President Ulysses S. Grant for president in 1872 and was arrested. Sojourner Truth requested a ballot in Michigan the same year and was denied. In 1878, Sen. Aaron A. Sargent (R-CA) introduced the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, aiming to pass the 16th Amendment. It was worded exactly the same as the 19th Amendment that passed in 1920, yet it failed.

As Suffragists organized using the tools of their day — word of mouth, letters, newspaper articles, telegrams, and good old-fashioned organizing, the effort grew despite the best efforts to muddy the political water with issues such as race and temperance surrounding the prohibition of alcohol. Anti-Suffragists even referenced Holy Scripture to paint a picture of destruction that would come from the ability for women to vote.

As states were added to the Union, Wyoming became the first to award universal suffrage to its American citizens in 1869, with western states growing in number honoring the voice of women versus the eastern counterparts whose governing documents included no such provisions.

A pause in the organizational efforts occurred in 1914 when the U.S. entered World War I and women lent not only their hearts but both hands in becoming much of the workforce creating munitions and doing the jobs formerly held by men sent to fight. At the conclusion of WWI and after much pressure to his initial resistance, President Woodrow Wilson supported efforts via Congress to move on the 19th Amendment.

On June 4, 1919, the Senate passed enabling legislation that began the process of constitutional ratification, 41 years after the amendment language was first introduced. Thirty-six of the existing 48 states would be required to successfully amend the Constitution.

By 1920, 35 states’ legislatures had passed the needed legislation with five remaining that could be the last — the “Perfect 36.” Connecticut, Vermont, Florida, North Carolina, and Tennessee were states remaining to debate the issue within their respective legislatures, with the Volunteer State offering the best hope.

Back in April 1918, the Tennessee Suffragists had successfully worked to obtain partial suffrage with the ability to vote in local elections. This hope made Nashville the epicenter of both the Suffragists and “Anti’s” who located both their headquarters at The Hermitage Hotel, just across the street from the Capitol once Governor Albert H. Roberts had called a special session of the General Assembly.

Upon convening in the heat of August 1920, the Tennessee Senate passed the resolution with ease while the Tennessee House was divided. Several votes had been taken in efforts to table the resolution, protecting members from casting ballots on the actual issue.

To assist in voting counting, ladies of each lobbying effort employed rose boutonnieres: The “Anti’s” distributed red roses for their efforts while yellow roses were donned on the lapels of state House members prepared to stand in support of woman suffrage.

On August 18, 1920, suffragists and anti-suffragists packed the galleries in the Tennessee House. Speaker Seth Walker of Lebanon led the “antis” while Joseph Hanover of Memphis led for women in the tension-filled chamber. The vote to table the amendment, which would have effectively “killed” the bill, failed with a tie. A second vote was called to move the resolution.

The youngest House member, 24-year-old Harry Burn (R-Niota), faced an internal dilemma. His coat pocket held a seven-page letter from Febb Burn, his mother. Febb had read the speeches given in the Tennessee Senate in her local paper and was angry. Among general news of the family farm, Febb used the letter to persuade her son to change his anti-suffrage stance, taken in deference to his county’s more senior senator, H.M. Candler, who made a “bearcat” of a speech stirring Burn’s mom. Febb wrote, “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.”

A college-educated, 46-year-old woman running a farm as a widow, Febb employed illiterate farm workers who had the vote, while she did not. Sporting a red anti-suffrage rose, Burn shocked the chamber by declaring “aye” for the amendment, thus breaking a tie and changing the course of history.

Activist efforts of the anti-suffragists failed to reverse the vote. On August 24, 1920, Governor Albert H. Roberts certified Tennessee’s ratification and, two days later, U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby officially certified the 19th Amendment as part of the United States Constitution.

This War of the Roses forever impacted American history. So, abandon the pink hats of the angry, militant women fighting for abortion-on-demand and give a rest to the red of the GOP and the blue of the Democrats. For the rest of the month of August, don your best shade of yellow for the Woman Suffrage history that begins its centennial year. Yes, Mrs. Febb, it’s Hurrah for suffrage!

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