Early on the morning of August 26, 1920, a stack of documents arrived by train to Washington, D.C. The papers had left Tennessee the day before, among them, the official ratification document of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Around 8 a.m. in the quiet of his home, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed a proclamation certifying the amendment after its ratification by the Tennessee Legislature, the 36th needed. There was no fanfare, no members of the movement behind the amendment were in attendance.
“Inasmuch as I am not interested in the aftermath of any of the friction or collisions which may have been developed in the long struggle for the ratification of the amendment, I have contented myself with the performance in the simplest manner of the duty devolving upon me under the law,” Colby said, according to the National Constitution Center.
Now, Wednesday, August 26, is celebrated as national Women’s Equality Day and this year marks 100 years since the signing of the historic proclamation which officially gave white women in the country the right to vote.
Although the movement was large and lasted decades, women in Appalachia played pivotal roles in the passage of the 19th Amendment, including the ratification needed by that final state – Tennessee. These are the stories of just a few of those women.
West Virginia and the ‘Rubber Neck Suffragettes’
Much like their fellow Appalachians in Tennessee, West Virginia was one of the last states to ratify the 19th Amendment, 34th on the list, but long before it was enacted, it was a celebration of statehood and the almost boycott of the event by suffragettes that helped give West Virginia women a national spotlight.
In 1913, West Virginia marked 50 years of statehood with celebrations of all sizes. Among the largest was the West Virginia Golden Jubilee – billed as “The Greatest Celebration Ever Held in the Ohio Valley,” and held in Wheeling, the state’s first capital.
A pamphlet for the jubilee entitled “Roll Around a Week in a Square Town” advertised parades, expositions, memorial services, receptions – even a musical assembly where a grand chorus of 3,000 choral singers and 200 musicians would lead sing alongs on the state’s official birthday, June 20.
Among the many festivities, though, the pamphlet advertised a final parade on June 21, a Burlesque and Fantastic Parade, and admonishes visitors “Don’t miss the Rubber Neck Suffragettes!”
West Virginia’s suffragettes were outraged.And they let the planning committee know it.
Dr. Harriett B. Jones – the first woman to be licensed as a physician in West Virginia and a leader in the suffrage movement – called the billing a smack in the face of suffragettes. A large suffragette parade had taken place in Washington, D.C., just a month before and after the success of such a high profile event, Jones alluded to the Wheeling parade as a mockery of their efforts.
“It’s an insult to every woman of the state,” Jones told the Wheeling Daily News on May 19, 1913. “It is nothing short of disgraceful. However, I do not believe that the reflection on women-kind was deliberately intended. I can readily understand that it was not meant in a disparaging spirit or for the purpose of subjecting any woman to ridicule, and get that is light in which many would thoughtlessly view it.”
She went on, “The native chivalry of true West Virginians is too deep-rooted to permit such a travesty on the fairer sex and I am sure that it will not be permitted to take place.”
She and other leaders of the movement in the state, including Marion County’s Lenna Lowe Yost, threatened to boycott the festivities altogether. For their part, event planners said they weren’t aware of the pamphlets language.
Like many politically active women of the time, Yost was not only involved in the fight for women’s right to vote, but in the temperance movement as well. After becoming involved in the Morgantown Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), she went on to become the president of West Virginia’s WCTU in 1908, and then accepted a role in the national WCTU, as Washington correspondent of the organization’s journal the Union Signal.
Yost was also a member of the West Virginia Equal Suffrage Association and of the Daughters of the American Revolution. What’s more, her husband, Ellis Yost, was a member of the state legislature.
Jubilee organizers knew if women like Jones and Yost boycotted the festivities, almost no one would come. The parade was cancelled, and organizers worked with Jones to come up with a suitable replacement.
The effectiveness of the threatened boycott did not go unnoticed outside of Wheeling. The story was picked up by newspapers across the country and subsequently shed light on the activist women’s cause and plight.
That same year, 1913, Ellis Yost would introduce a women’s suffrage amendment to the West Virginia House of Delegates that successfully passed with little attempt to block it on a 58 to 25 vote. But the amendment faced significant opposition in the Senate, where members made considerable amendments – including limiting the women’s vote to school board elections – but in the end, it didn’t receive the two thirds majority vote it needed to go to a vote of the people.
A similar measure was introduced and easily passed in the state Legislature in 1915, but failed by some 100,000 votes when put on the ballot, leaving it up to the passage of a national amendment, which came four years later.
But in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson supported the addition of a 19th amendment and Congress passed it. The legislation that said the right to vote could not be abridged or denied on the basis of sex was then sent to the states and by late February, 1920, West Virginia’s Gov. John J. Cornwell called the Legislature to Charleston for a special session. Lawmakers were there to consider issues with state tax law, but Cornwell had also slipped the Federal Suffrage Amendment into the call.
Petitions with tens of thousands of signatures collected by suffragettes flooded the desks of lawmakers who, March 10, 1920, passed the amendment by a tight margin, making West Virginia the 34th state (out of a needed 36) to ratify the federal amendment.
The Tennessee Mother Who Arguably Made History
Other states in Appalachia – Maryland, Virginia, Alabama and Georgia among them – rejected the federal amendment outright and as the clock ticked down to the end of the year, only a few governors were willing to call up special sessions of their legislatures to vote on the amendment before a legislative deadline.
Tennessee’s General Assembly, however, gathered to vote on August 18, 1920, with the words of an Appalachian woman in the pocket of the man who would cast the deciding vote.
At 24, Harry Burn was Tennessee’s youngest legislator in 1920, hailing from Mouse Creek in east Tennessee, now Niota. While he was in favor of the amendment, when Burn headed to Nashville to cast his vote, he was under a great deal of political pressure to vote against it. Telegrams from constituents came flooding in for him claiming, erroneously, that the majority of home McMinn County were opposed to the amendment. Political party leaders expected him to follow suit.
But as he entered the capitol that August morning, all eyes on the state that could decide the fate of the women’s vote, Burn held in his pocket a letter from his mother, Febb Ensminger Burn.
According to the author of “The Women’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote” Elaine Weiss, Febb was a college educated widower now running the family farm in Mouse Creek who strongly supported the suffrage movement. In her letter, Febb told her son, “Hurrah and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed Chandlers’ speech, it was very bitter. I’ve been watching to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet … Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. [Carrie Chapman] ‘Thomas Catt’ with her “Rats.” Is she the one that put rat in ratification, Ha!”
After unsuccessful attempts to table the vote altogether, during a roll call vote, Burn raised his “aye” vote, shocking his conservative district. In a speech to his fellow lawmakers the next day, Burn said, “I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify,” but also that, “I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”
From a threat to boycott a state’s golden anniversary to a mother’s words in her son’s pocket, the voices of Appalachian women played a pivotal role in the passage of the 19th Amendment, but that fight, admittedly, did not benefit all women. White women alone benefited from the women’s suffrage movement. It would take court decisions in the 1940s and the eventual passage in the 1960s of the Voting Rights Act to protect the voting rights of Indigenous and Black women.