A South Valley woman once told me she doesn’t have any time
studying the political issues and the candidates during election
campaigns. That’s why she never votes, she explained. I’m sure the
thousands of women who struggled and sacrificed to win her the
right to vote might, just might, consider that busy woman’s remark
a rather rude slap in the face.
A South Valley woman once told me she doesn’t have any time “to waste” studying the political issues and the candidates during election campaigns. That’s why she never votes, she explained. I’m sure the thousands of women who struggled and sacrificed to win her the right to vote might, just might, consider that busy woman’s remark a rather rude slap in the face.
During this election season as we see a multitude of women running for political office in California and throughout the nation, we should remember that the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution plays a significant role in our on-going drama of democracy. The suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt and Elizabeth Canton are, of course, high on history’s pantheon in getting passage. But we also mustn’t forget the men who played a part. Harry T. Burns, a 24-year-old Tennessee politician, was the gentleman who opened the final door allowing the ladies to vote.
I learned about Burns when I agreed to be a speaker in a presentation called “The Great Crusade: Celebrating the 90th Anniversary of Woman Suffrage.” It was hosted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) at the Morgan Hill Library, on Aug. 26. You can view it on www.mhat.blip.tv.
Suffrage was a 70-year slog. The movement faced opposition from groups as diverse as the Roman Catholic Church and the United States Brewers Association. Astonishingly, even women organized against their sisters to oppose the movement. They created the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League.
Arguments opposing woman suffrage hung on the question of morality. Opponents claimed suffrage organizers and activists were “socialists” full of “lust and immorality.” Suffrage was bad for children. It would break up homes and destroy marriages. Women were the “weaker” sex and controlled by emotions – and thus could never make logical decisions like men could. Women did not fight in the military, and so had not “earned” the voting privilege. The Bible said women must be subservient to men, so suffrage was a sin.
Needless to say, when women started voting, it did not spell the end of civilization. Ironically, a lot of the arguments used back then are being applied today to the question of allowing same-sex marriage and other issues of social change.
Part of the problem with our human nature is that we don’t like to change. And when it comes to the beliefs we hold, change is an especially painful procedure. We humans tend to hang on to our opinions and prejudices even when the facts show those opinions and prejudices might not match up with reality. We don’t like to admit that we’re wrong.
Changing a viewpoint is often a psychological paradigm shift that requires immense emotional energy to make. And the more extreme our views, the harder it is to make the mental adjustment to adjust our views to reality. People being what they are, they will fight change of established viewpoint or opinion if they’re not ready to make the shift.
But with perseverance, change does come. So far, it hasn’t caused the world’s end. Woman suffrage was not the moral evil some people thought it was. It didn’t destroy American society. It improved America a bit by creating a more gender-balanced democracy.
The issue of social change brings us back to the gentleman from Tennessee I referred to earlier… Mr. Harry Burns.
In 1918, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the proposed 19th amendment by the required two-thirds votes. The Senate failed to pass it initially, but President Woodrow Wilson pushed it through in a second round in 1919. The states then started ratifying. One state stalled the process. The Volunteer State… Tennessee.
Tennessee had a powerful liquor lobby. Whiskey distilleries opposed the 19th Amendment, fearing passage would lead to Prohibition. Among the legislators in Tennessee who voted “nay” was Harry Burns. Passage stalled by one vote. And then, Burns received a letter from his mother.
Mrs. Burns’ letter shows an adoring mom telling the town gossip and news of the family farm. Toward the end of this correspondence, almost as an afterthought, she gives her son the counsel to “be a good boy” and vote for suffrage.
Burns switched sides, announcing, “I know that a mother’s advice is always the safest for a boy to follow.” With those words, he gave the deciding “yeah” vote and the 19th amendment became the law of the land. The date was Aug. 26, 1920.
Harry Burns’ vote for woman suffrage provides proof that the American experiment is an on-going expansion of rights and freedom for all. It demonstrates that when it comes to other controversial issues, at a certain point in time when we are ready, we Americans will go beyond our prejudices and stand up for our principles.