Last week, on Aug. 18, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the constitutional right to vote. On Wednesday, we are marking the day when the amendment officially entered the Constitution. We pay little attention to what happened during that curious, chaotic week in between. Why the delay?
It took that extra week for women to gain the right to vote because suffrage opponents launched a brute-force campaign to nullify the ratification and cast doubt upon its legality. The tale of this strange interlude involves racism, legal obstruction and political dirty tricks; it also offers an alarmingly relevant glimpse into what can happen when a bitter and well funded faction refuses to accept the outcome of a political decision involving race, sex and voting rights.
The cheers in the Tennessee House chamber following the very narrow victory for ratification — the deciding vote delivered by its youngest member, the 24-year-old freshman delegate Harry T. Burn — were still echoing when the backlash began. The stakes had been high: Tennessee was the last state needed to propel the 19th Amendment into the Constitution. Burn’s aye had extended the vote to women citizens in every state.
The young delegate was booed and hissed. The commotion in the chamber grew so heated that the governor ordered the sergeant-at-arms to protect Burn. Burn managed to escape the chamber unscathed, but he wasn’t safe yet: Powerful interests were after him.
Among them were racist forces in the South. The 19th Amendment, in theory, extended the vote to Black women. Most other Southern states had already rejected it, considering it a federally imposed racial equality edict. (Southern Black men, who’d won the right to vote with the 15th Amendment in 1870, were by this time disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws and violent intimidation.)
Corporations, convinced that women at the ballot box would be bad for their bottom lines, were also feverishly at work. Manufacturers feared female voters would want to abolish child labor; liquor interests thought they’d push for stronger enforcement of Prohibition; railroads feared women might derail their influence-peddling efforts in state legislatures and Congress. They all sprang into action.