Red or yellow? An overly brief history on the dynamic and difficult pathway to women’s suffrage and women’s equality day

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - -- Red rose or yellow rose? Yes or No? Should women be allowed the right to vote? 

These were the questions on the minds of 96 male legislators in Nashville, Tennessee in Aug. 1920. These men controlled the fate of a woman’s right to vote. The 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote had been passed by Congress the previous year, however under the U.S. Constitution, 36 of the 48 existing state legislatures had to approve. By the spring of 1920, 35 states had ratified, six had rejected, and Tennessee seemed most likely to ratify of the remaining states. 

The Tennessee legislature’s fight over suffrage lasted for nearly a week. Then President Woodrow Wilson, under pressure by suffragists, set things in motion when he asked Tennessee Governor, Albert H. Roberts, to call a special session of the Tennessee Assembly. When the special session opened on Aug. 9, 1920, members of the state, neighboring states, and national suffrage and anti-suffrage associations flocked to Nashville to lobby. Included was Carrie Chapman Catt, the most prominent suffragist after the deaths of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She had taken up residence in Nashville to lobby for over a month prior to the assembly. Suffrage supporters wore yellow roses; antis wore red roses. The Tennessee State Senate went yellow, but the House was evenly divided. The Speaker of the House, Seth Walker, wearing red, entered a motion to table the resolution. This resulted in a tie vote. Then another vote, resulting in another tie. When the third roll call vote began, this time about the resolution itself, one man who had been wearing a red rose had taken off the red rose and placed a bright yellow rose on his suit jacket. 

Red to Yellow. If Mama Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy.

The man who had switched last minute was Harry Burn, a 24-year-old representative from East Tennessee who had received a letter from his mother, Phoebe E. Burn. The letter read:

Dear Son:
Hurrah and vote suffrage!...Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the “rat” in ratification. Your Mother.

From Red to Yellow. However, this was not the end. Speaker Walker also voted in favor in an attempt to set up a vote to reconsider the resolution. The antis tried to build support for their side in anticipation of a reconsideration vote. When that did not occur, 38 legislators crossed the border into Alabama to prevent the Assembly from having a quorum on any future vote. Both sides engaged lawyers to look into the legal issues. A judge issued a temporary injunction restraining the governor from transmitting certification of ratification to Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby. However, ignoring the injunction, Governor Roberts signed the certification and on Aug. 25, 1920 it was sent to Washington D.C., arriving just before 4 a.m. On Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution. 

At the behest of Representative Bella Abzug (D-NY), in 1971 the U.S. Congress designated Aug. 26 as “Women’s Equality Day.” The date was chosen to commemorate the day in 1920 when Secretary of State Colby signed the proclamation granting American women the constitutional right to vote. The observance of Women’s Equality Day not only honors the passage of the 19th Amendment, but also highlights women’s continuing efforts toward full equality.

Joint Resolution of Congress, 1971
Designating Aug. 26 of each year as Women’s Equality Day

WHEREAS, the women of the United States have been treated as second-class citizens and have not been entitled the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States; and

WHEREAS, the women of the United States have united to assure that these rights and privileges are available to all citizens equally regardless of sex; and

WHEREAS, the women of the United States have designated Aug. 26, the anniversary date of the certification of the Nineteenth Amendment, as symbol of the continued fight for equal rights: and

WHEREAS, the women of United States are to be commended and supported in their organizations and activities,

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that Aug. 26th of each year is designated as Women’s Equality Day, and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote, and that day in 1970, on which a nationwide demonstration for women’s rights took place.

Information for this article was obtained at http://werehistory.org and http://www.nwhp.org/resources/commemorations/womens-equality-day/.