On this day…

June 4, 1919, the U.S. Congress ratified the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. Over a year and a half later Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment making it law. It almost didn’t happen. Thanks to a young woman from Charleston, S.C. the battle was won on a Tennessee morning in August of 1920.

Anita Pollitzer was the daughter of a merchant in Charleston who went to Columbia University in New York City because the College of Charleston was all male. While there she met Alice Paul, the great suffragette. Anita immediately saw the importance of working towards women’s suffrage and joined Alice’s group of activists. It was Alice’s idea to picket the White House to pressure President Woodrow Wilson to support their efforts. They were the first group to do so. They were jailed and went on hunger strike. When the press found out that Alice and several others were being force fed it led President Wilson to relent and ask Congress to support a 19th amendment to the Constitution that would give women the right to vote. It wasn’t a completely selfless gesture however as the US was embroiled in WWI and women were needed to fill jobs vacated by fighting soldiers. Congress ratified the amendment on June 4, 1919. It now needed 36 states to ratify before becoming law.

In August of 1920 Tennessee was scheduled to vote on ratification. It would be the much needed 36th state if the vote succeeded. Alice Paul sent Anita there to lobby. Anita had spent that year traveling the country as the premier lobbyist for the amendment. When she arrived in Tennessee she discovered that the legislature was evenly divided between supporters and opponents. It was her job to find a ‘swing’ vote. She had done her research and put her sights on Harry Burns to lobby to switch sides. She met with him and made an eloquent case for the economic and moral reasons to vote in favor. He wouldn’t budge.

The morning of the vote all of the white male legislators filed into the chamber. Half went to one side and the other half were seated across from them. Just before the vote was called a Western Union messenger boy ran into the chamber and delivered a telegram to Harry Burns. Harry opened it, read it, folded it and put it into his pocket. He then got up out of his seat and crossed the room to join the supporters of the amendment which was then ratified by a one vote margin.

The telegram was from Harry’s mother. Anita had gone to see her to plead her case. Mrs. Burns said in her telegram to her son, “Allow me the right to vote before I die.”

Anita refused to give up on what she believed. I remember Anita when ever I am faced with the naysayers who don’t take the issues women face seriously. I hold Anita in my heart when talking about paying women on a par with men and electing more women to public office. Anita Pollitzer is my heroine and an example of true grit and determination. Happy ratification day Anita!!!


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