The New Citizenship, (21 September 1920) Knoxville, Tennessee


On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state—the last needed—to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. In declaring, “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,” the amendment reversed the Fourteenth Amendment’s limitation of that right to male citizenship.1 By the time the Tennessee Legislature passed suffrage, over one-third of the states had already extended suffrage to their female citizens. Tennessee was not among them, however, and suffrage was not wildly popular in the state.2 Despite this, the Tennessee state senate voted twenty-five to four to ratify, sending the measure to the house.3

The ninety-nine-member house more closely reflected the state’s political mood. A forty-eight to forty-eight deadlock left ratification in the hands of a twenty-four-year-old, first-term representative named Harry T. Burn. Suffragists did not quite know how to assess their chances: Burn had told them he favored suffrage personally, but that he was inclined to vote against it because that was how his constituents felt.4 Even his mother wrote him that she had “been watching to see how [he] stood.”5 On the day of the vote, Burn wore a red rose in his lapel—the visual marker that he would vote against ratification.6 But when the moment came, Rep. Burn voted to ratify. After his vote, Burn was forced to flee to escape an angry mob, and his colleagues attempted to reconsider passage—but these intimidations were unsuccessful. The ratification proceeded to Tennessee’s supportive governor.7

After the vote, a story developed to explain Rep. Burn’s vote. That story evolved from a letter he received from his mother right before his fateful vote. The letter, now in possession of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, encourages Burn to “be a good boy and help Mrs. ‘Thomas Catt’ with her ‘Rats.’” (This is generally presumed to be a reference to suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt.)8 The letter is postmarked August 17, 1920, and Burn supposedly received it the morning of the August 18—just as he was going to the capitol to vote on ratification. Because his mother had raised him to “be a good boy,” Burn said that he followed her call to “vote for suffrage.”9 When Knoxville-area suffragists planned a banquet to celebrate the passage of suffrage, they invited not only Rep. Burn—but his mother to the event.10

They also invited Burn to deliver the keynote address on the subject of “The New Citizenship.” The speech held great significance because Rep. Burn “did not speak publicly in favor of suffrage before casting his historic vote,” and his only public remarks after the vote were short answers addressing charges that he had been bribed.11 For the most part, Burn had explained his vote individually to his constituents, either through personal meetings or individual correspondence.

The day after the banquet—September 22, 1920—the Knoxville Sentinel reprinted Burn’s remarks within an article about the banquet.12 After stating that “it had indeed been a great privilege to him finally to support suffrage,” he proceeded to address the topic at hand. Rather than repeating that his mother changed his vote, though, Burn demonstrates his well-developed sense of why suffrage was beneficial. Burn’s remarks reflect prominent themes from the pro-suffrage movement. Furthermore, Burn redirects the spotlight to those who had worked far longer and harder for suffrage than he had on winning suffrage for women.


  1. “19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Women’s Right to Vote (1920),” Our Documents – a Cooperative Effort among National History Day, The National Archives and Records Administration, and USA Freedom Corps., n.d.,
  2. For an exhaustive list and a timeline for expanding suffrage, see: “Woman Suffrage Timeline (1840-1920),” National Women’s History Museum, n.d.,
  3. Elizabeth Taylor, “A Short History of the Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 2, no. 3 (September 1, 1943): 212.
  4. Robert B. Jones and Mark E. Byrnes. “The ‘Bitterest Fight’: The Tennessee General Assembly and the Nineteenth Amendment.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 68, no. 3 (October 1, 2009): 277.
  5. “Letter to Harry Burn from Mother,” August 1920, Harry T. Burn Papers, Knox County Public Library, Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection.
  6. Anastatia Sims, “‘Powers That Pray’ and ‘Powers That Prey’: Tennessee and the Fight for Woman Suffrage,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 50, no. 4 (December 1, 1991): 218.
  7. Taylor, “A Short History of the Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee,” 213.
  8. Taylor, “A Short History of the Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee,” 213.
  9. “Letter to Harry Burn from Mother.”
  10. “French. Harry T. Burn Letter,” September 18, 1920, Lizzie Crozier French Papers, Knox County Public Library, Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection.
  11. Personal communication with Steve Cotham, McClung Collection Manager, “Harry T. Burn Papers,” September 22, 2015.
  12. “Suffrage Victory Is Celebrated; Women Give Banquet To Solons Who Were Ratification Boosters,” Knoxville Sentinel, September 22, 1920.