Honoring Mothers: East Tennessee mother’s letter to son helped change future for women

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — In honor of Mother’s Day, WATE 6 On Your Side looked back into East Tennessee’s history and how influential mothers were in the early 1900s.

For 72 years, hundreds of mothers fought for women’s right to vote, also known as Women’s Suffrage.

Wanda Sobieski, president of the Suffrage Coalition, said that Tennessee played a pivotal role in ratifying the 19th Amendment, as 36 states were needed to ratify the amendment.

“The amendment was ratified quickly, or fairly quickly, by the first 35 states, and then it started failing in the north, where they thought it would pass. The south had been solidly anti-suffrage. Some of the states refused to take it up one way or the other,” Sobiesky said.

She said that for a variety of reasons, Tennessee was the state chosen to be the final battleground.

“The eyes of the world turned to Tennessee in August of 1920, after Governor Roberts called a special session of the legislature,” Sobiesky said.

She said the bill passed fairly quickly in the Senate, but came across trouble in the House.

Sobieksy said House members tried every maneuver they could in order to not vote, and that lasted for about two weeks.

Finally, the day came to vote. Legislators wore yellow roses for pro-suffrage, and red roses for anti-suffrage.

“So on the morning of the 18th (of August), the women sitting in the balcony could literally count the votes by counting the colors of the roses. And it appeared to be a dead tie, and a tie meant suffrage would lose,” Sobiesky said.

Sobiesky said legislators first tried to table to vote, but everyone voted in accordance with the color of rose they wore, so it was a tie.

The House then went ahead with roll call for the vote.

Rep. Harry Burn, R-McMinn County, was 24 years old, the youngest member at the time, and seventh in line to vote.

Sobiesky said Burn stood up, wearing a red rose, and voted “yay” to ratify the amendment.

“He had gotten a letter from his mother that day, and she had urged him to vote for suffrage, and so he switched his vote, and he gave his mother the vote. What a Mother’s Day gift is that,” Sobiesky asked.

She said that Burn’s mother, Febb Burn, didn’t like to get involved with her son’s political work.

She said Febb Burn chose to send her son a letter after she read what a senator from McMinn County said, who was anti-suffrage.

While Febb Burn’s letter was what ultimately led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, she wasn’t the only mother who helped with the suffrage movement.

Mothers were involved for the entire 72 years of the movement.

Sobiesky said that the anti-suffragists used motherhood as their propaganda tool.

“One of the most common things throughout the 72 years was the claim that suffragists couldn’t be mothers, or wouldn’t be mothers, or would abandon their children to vote or get involved in politics; that the fathers would have to change the diapers and feed them bottles, and get up with them at night, and they would be abandoned as well,” Sobiesky said.

She said back then, the thought of a household without a mother was terrifying for men, and for some women.

Sobiesky said that when the suffragists got enough cartoonists and artists, they started to turn the tables of the propoganda.

“We need the vote because we’re mothers. We can be better mothers. We know more about their education and the children’s health, and the issues that affect the home and that affect children. So we should be given the vote to improve the home for our children,” Sobiesky said.

The creator of the kewpie dolls, Rose O’Neill, joined the suffrage movement and created a lot of the artwork for the cause.

In 2018, the Suffrage Coalition led the effort to create a statue of Harry and Febb Burn to commemorate the historic vote.

August 18, 2020 will be the 100-year anniversary for the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Sobiesky said the Suffrage Coalition, along with Visit Knoxville, were planning for several small and large celebrations throughout the year of 2020, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most events have been postponed.

Events on the weekend of the 100th anniversary are still being discussed.

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