Ninety-five years ago today, Tennessee endorsed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote, and this wouldn’t be possible without the work of Carrie Chapman Catt.
Tennessee’s landmark decision tipped the scales in the women’s suffragette movement. Previously, thirty-five states passed the Amendment, but one more was needed to secure a two-thirds majority and allow it to become law of the land.
In the days leading up to the Tennessee vote, support of the controversial Amendment seemed unlikely. However, a surprise about-face by a young Representative, Henry Burns, changed history by breaking a 48-48 tie and voting in favor of ratification. Burns had previously voiced opposition to the Amendment. What changed his mind at the eleventh hour? Purportedly it was his mother, Carrie Chapman Catt. She told her son, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”
Wisconsin born, Catt, worked as a teacher and then a school superintendent before joining the suffragette movement in the 1880s. She served as the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1900 to 1904 and again for 1915 to 1920, and she is credited as the founder of the League of Women Voters.
The road to ratification took over 70 years. Many mark its start in 1848 when over 200 people gathered in Seneca Falls for the first Women’s Rights convention organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, though the seeds were sown well before then. Likewise, after ratification, more work needed to be done. Carrie Chapman Catt and The League of Women Voters advocated for all states to ratify the 19th Amendment. It took six more decades. Mississippi became the 50th state to support the Amendment in 1984.
Jennie Cohen, “The Mother Who Saved Suffrage: Passing the 19th Amendment,” History in the Headlines, August 16, 2012.
Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors, “Carrie Chapman Catt,” The Reader’s Companion to American History. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 1991.
Elizabeth MacNamara, “95 Years Ago: A Final Step Towards the 19th Amendment and Women’s Right to Vote,” The League of Women Voters. August 18, 2015
“The National Archives Celebrates the 90th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment,” The National Archives. August 12, 2010.