More than a century ago, suffragists and their many opponents crowded into the Tennessee statehouse to witness what they hoped would be the final verdict on whether women would vote in the 1920 election and beyond. The 19th Amendment had already been ratified by 35 of the required 36 states. With other states refusing to call special ratification sessions, Tennessee remained the suffragists’ last chance to vote in 1920.

The debate in Nashville raged for days, in the chamber, in committee rooms, and spilling out into restaurants and hotels. By midday on 18 August, the outcome was still too close to call. Then, young legislator Harry Burn switched his vote to ‘yes’. Most of his constituents opposed women voting, but the constituent who mattered most to him was his mother. That morning she had sent a note urging him to “be a good boy and help Mrs Catt [the suffrage leader]”.

Burn’s surprise ‘yes’ vote marked the culmination of more than three generations of activism. American women had first demanded the vote in the 1840s, as part of the abolitionist movement’s call for ‘universal suffrage’. The movement splintered after the American Civil War, however, when the 14th and 15th Amendments granted citizenship rights, including the vote, to black men but not to women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others began agitating for an amendment enfranchising women.

Burn’s vote marked the culmination of more than three generations of activism

Between the 1870s and 1920, suffragists overcame prodigious opposition, countless setbacks, and internal divisions. By the 1910s, suffrage had become a well-funded, well-organised political movement representing hundreds of thousands of women.

When the 19th Amendment finally came before Congress in 1918, women had made so many gains in other realms that objections based on ‘female inferiority’ no longer held sway. Instead, the main obstacle became white leaders’ desire to keep black citizens from the polls. Elected officials from all regions and both parties feared that the 19th Amendment would compel the federal government to enforce voting rights in Southern states. So white suffragists signalled to Southern leaders that they could disenfranchise black women just as they had long disenfranchised black men, through poll taxes, literacy tests and outright intimidation. This meant that it was not until the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the 19th Amendment became a reality for all women.

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We mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment during a contentious election year when voting rights are more precarious than at any time in recent US history. The suffrage centennial reminds us of the tremendous political power of women, the lengths to which white leaders have gone to keep African-American citizens from the polls, and the vital necessity of every vote in a democracy.

Kimberly A Hamlin is a historian and writer. Her latest book is Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener (WW Norton, 2020)

A group of formerly enslaved African-Americans around the time of the US Civil War

This article first appeared in the August 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine