August in Nashville can be unforgiving. With temperatures in the 90’s and thick humidity hanging in the air, one can feel as though the world around them is one big steam pressure cooker. Relief only comes in an air-conditioned room, dreaming of drier, cooler September days ahead. But in 1920, of course, there was no air-conditioning to sit in, and the August days that year were so hot and humid that September could have been located in another dimension for all people knew.
Harry Burn must have thought about how ironic his namesake was as he hid in the attic, several stories up from the angry crowd below, the heat of being closer to the lid of the steamer no match for that of the raging flames from the firestorm below. He must have wondered which of those two sources caused the red carnation on his lapel to wilt, his clothes to dampen, and the dripping from his face to smear the ink on the note in his hand. Harry Burn surely felt like he was going to.
Harry was, at that moment, a scared, young, 24-year old. He was not the arrogant, confident, young 22-year old man who only a summer and a few months before became the youngest elected member of the state legislature. Hours before cowering behind a locked door in the attic of the most prestigious building in the state, though, he was just that, another braggadocios politician, intent to be patted on the back and blow wind when needed as he climbed the steps and watched in amazement at the sea of people around him. Like the other lawmakers, Harry had arrived at the Capitol Building that morning; on as hot an August 9th as an August morning could possibly be in Nashville, intent on delivering his “Ayes” and “Nays” on the 139 issues in front of Tennessee Legislature to the delight of his party allies and the approving nods of the city’s influencers. But, the sea of people weren’t there to hear the votes any but one of those issues.
Harry knew he couldn’t hide in the attic forever, but he could for long enough to avoid the angry mob below and the even angrier politicians that banged on the door behind him. Eventually, the heat would cause the crowds to disperse in search of some respite. As he waited and sweat, and sweat and waited, though, he knew, scared and young or not, that nobody would ever remember any of those 138 other issues. People would remember only one.
35 states had passed a measure that would give women the right to vote, and the 36th state was now filled with thousands of pro- and anti-suffrage activists seeking to either influence or stop the final vote from going the wrong way. If ratified by Tennessee, a decades-long battle would end. Since a measure to table the issue failed to pass, the State Speaker had no other course to take than a ratification vote. Surely, that vote would end in a tie, as well, and weeks more debate would ensue. But nobody watching the politicians exaggerate their nods and shakes and proclamations and oppositions during the vote knew about the note Harry was given that morning. Only Harry did, and his collar was tightening, and his brow was dripping, and the grip on the paper note in his hand was unyielding, as his name was being readied to call.
Harry’s mother, known by all as Miss Febb, wasn’t quiet about her feelings on the subject of women’s rights. Harry’s anti-suffrage stance disturbed her and although she wouldn’t work publicly against her son, she wasn’t at all happy with him. No matter before that morning, though, none of the anti-suffrage crowd doubted his resolve. And so the vote came to him.
His voice cracked, “Aye.”
It took a moment, but the room did a collective double-take. Harry Burn was wearing a red flower. Harry Burn had assured his colleagues that he would never vote to allow women the right to vote. Harry Burn was supposed to say “Nay.” The room erupted in chaos, news quickly rolling through the masses outside and growing into waves of change that were felt across the country and across the world in mere minutes. And that’s when Harry ran out of the room, into the attic, locked the door, and hid.
The note Miss Febb gave to her son that morning said many things. It talked about the struggles women had endured, it talked about the futility of trying to stand against the winds of change, it talked about the leaders of the suffrage movement and how noble and just their cause was.
Hours later, when it was safe to leave, Harry Burn, the elected lawmaker, the one that would go on to serve the country for most of his long life, walked through the attic door, climbed down the stairs, exited the building and slowly walked the back way home so as to not risk being confronted. He walked tall, realizing he hadn’t needed to hide for nearly as long as he did that day, and noticed the faint scent of fall in the evening. As he walked into Phoebe Ensminger Burn’s house, he must have thought only about the part of his mother, Miss Febb’s, note that implored Harry to “…be a good boy.”
He made his momma proud that day, no doubt.
With that in mind, here’s a few movie quotes on the subject:
“Let me tell you something, Toula. The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.” – Lainie Kazan in My Big Fat Greek Wedding
“Somebody up there has got it in for me. I bet it’s my mother.” – Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia!
“We must never kneel down before the tyranny of a majority.” – Jurnee Smollett in The Great Debaters
“There will never be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.” – Sally Kellerman in the PBS documentary by Ken Burns: Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony