In a letter to her husband John, who in the spring of 1776 was vociferously arguing for a declaration of independence, Abigail Adams, playfully and yet with seriousness and ardor wrote:
“I long to hear that you have declared an independency — and by the way, in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.”
John and Abigail Adams enacted one of the great love stories in American history and for his part, he was as devoted a husband as one can find throughout all history, but given the exigencies of the moment and the prevailing gender conventions imputed into society for millennia, the “Ladies” would unfortunately have to wait another 144 years to be “remembered.”
War of the Roses
In a scene reminiscent of the 15th century English power struggle between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, in which the Lancastrians donned a red rose to demonstrate their loyalty to one faction and the Yorkists, a white one to represent fealty to another, the Tennessee state House of Representatives was awash in a sea of roses, red and yellow. It was August 18th 1920.
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution had been passed by the U.S. Congress and, per the Constitution, it required the approval of three-quarters of the states to be ratified. 35 of the 48 states had already approved it, leaving just one more state out of the thirteen remaining to make it the law of the land. Surely one would make the leap for womanhood.
But the odds were not as they seemed. The suffragettes and their supporters had concentrated on the states that they had felt they could win. They had achieved much but the hardest work was yet to be done. Four states had defiantly refused to vote on the amendment. Twelve more, had not called into session their assemblies and showed little impetus for doing so. There was only one state in play and like 15th century England, it had become a battlefield.
Throughout the spring and summer, Nashville, and indeed all Tennessee was embroiled in the battle to add a short but powerful appendage to one of the greatest governing documents in history. Speeches were made, women of all ages, classes, races and backgrounds, descended upon the southern town in an attempt to sway the legislators.
The town was overflowing with media from New York, Boston and the like. Devotees to the cause such as Carrie Chapman Catt were there to marshall a call to arms. In a show of unity and resolve, the women passed out yellow roses to be worn as a demonstration of support for the far-reaching and and elusive amendment.
The time had finally come. The floor of the state house was miserably hot and muggy in the August heat but was made worse by the enormity of the crowd. The legislators tugged at and rearranged their collars and ties in a feeble attempt at gaining some measure of comfort.
The suffrage lieutenants on the sweltering floor took a “rose count.” In response to the the yellow roses worn by the supporters of the amendment, the anti-suffragists took to wearing red roses in demonstration of their intent to vote “no.”
To Vote or Not to Vote
The supporters were deflated when their “rose count” came back 47 in favor to 49 against. Knowing that a defeat in Tennessee would likely doom the amendment, their hearts sunk when it looked as if the vote to come in a moment would cruelly deny them a right to vote in the future.
The floor was called to order. The overstuffed crowd shuffled nervously in their seats. Everyone stared at the rose-clad men, alternately gleefully and disdainfully, depending on their own disposition. The vote came in. Deadlock — 48 to 48!
But someone had switched their rose. It was quickly learned that the vote switcher was representative Banks Turner. all he had really offered the suffragists at the moment however, was drama not victory. They were tied. By rule they had to take another vote. Would someone else change their mind? Would Banks Turner change his?
No. The second vote came in as had the first — deadlocked again 48 to 48.
Frayed nerves soon began to unravel as everyone realized how monumental this deadlock really was. That the long suffering fairer sex should not have a say in the greatest experiment in self government ever known, owing to just one man’s vote in just one state of forty-eight, was to teeter on the edge of insanity. The very promise of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal” surely meant women too! And what of “endowed by our creator?” Were women not similarly endowed by the same creator? These are the sentiments that must have run through the minds of those on whom was pinned a yellow rose.
Everyone of the legislators fidgeted about in the steamy August heat as they impatiently waited for yet another vote. But one young legislator was especially nervous and he was likely observed repeatedly clutching at his chest. Beneath his red rose was a letter he had just received. He no doubt had pulled it from his pocket several times to read it as the mayhem stirred around him.
A third call to vote was begun. Again, the ever-anxious crowd quieted and affixed their minds to the now familiar proceedings, all-the- while counting in their heads the roses, red and yellow. 1 then 2 and on and on. 14 for 14 against and on and on. 32, 33. As they neared the end of the roll call, the yellow roses braced themselves again. It was final. Their hearts stood still.
Out On A Ledge
Their silence was abruptly uprooted by a commotion on the floor below. A heap of men, animated by some unknown pursuit, were congregated to one side and suddenly took to flight. A young man was fast afoot in front of them as they chased him around the room. They cornered him. He appeared trapped but he was brave as well and exited out a third story window, just out of the grasp of his fellow Lanacastrian (red rose) lawmakers.
The young lads name was Harry Burn. One can imagine him thinking of the chivalrous knights of old he’d learned about as a child, as he climbed out the window and balanced himself precariously on the third story ledge.
To the shouts and indignations of his peers, Harry negotiated the ledge (no one was brave enough to follow) and made his way to the Capitol attic wherein he secretly installed himself and pondered what he had just done. He was vote number 49.
And so it is that a single man with an eleventh hour change of heart is responsible for insuring the passage of the 19th Amendment giving the constitutional right for women to vote — truly amazing. History is like that. It more often than not teeters on the actions of one or few. Later, when asked why he had changed his vote knowing the retribution he would suffer, he pulled out the letter that had stirred his heart. It read:
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.
Burn told reporters that a good boy always listens to his mother.
Abigail Adams can certainly thank her husband John for creating a country and a governing document which had in it a splendid device to amend itself. He understood that all wants cannot be obtained in a single moment, and as such, we must yield to time as time is the greatest arbiter of great things.
If she were able to, it is Harry Burn Abigail would thank for seizing his moment in time; for going out on a ledge to “Remember the Ladies.”