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Congressman Jason Smith

Congressman Jason Smith

39 Words

100 years ago this week, the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a defining moment in our nation’s storied history. After decades of women marching, fighting, and lobbying for their right to vote to be enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the House passed the 19th Amendment on May 21, 1919. What followed was a nationwide race for the states to ratify the amendment and protect women in the United States from persecution for simply being a part of our representative democracy.

On the surface, the 19th Amendment is just 39 words: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. But these 39 words carry a lot of weight and cap more than seven decades of struggle for the right to be heard in the voting booth since the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, NY. First introduced in Congress by Republican Senator Aaron Sargent in 1878, it wouldn’t be until 41 years later that they were sent to the states for ratification. 

It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say the 19th Amendment “granted” women the right to vote. You see, a defining characteristic of our liberties is that they are given to us by God, not by governments. Women had long argued the existence of their God-given right, and they pushed for a constitutional amendment so no state could deny them their right.

After 35 states ratified the 19th amendment, including Missouri, the stage was set for Tennessee to be the final state necessary to meet the three-fourths requirement to amend the U.S. Constitution. During the hot August of 1920, tempers flared in Nashville as the final vote came before the Tennessee State Legislature in what’s referred to as the “War of the Roses.” Opponents of women’s suffrage wore red roses on their lapels, while supporters of women having the right to vote wore yellow roses. While it passed easily in the Tennessee Senate, their House of Representatives was bitterly divided and the number of red roses barely outnumbered the yellow roses. After a call for the votes, members were surprised to find the vote deadlocked, 48-48.

On the third roll call vote the youngest member of the Tennessee House, who was wearing a red rose, decided to break the deadlock. That morning he received a letter from his mother, urging him to support women’s suffrage. With a red rose still on his lapel but clenching his mother’s letter, Republican Representative Harry Burn shocked his colleagues and voted “aye.” By uttering that single syllable in 1920, he ended the War of the Roses and cleared the way to recognize the right to vote for all women in the United States.

On Tuesday as I voted in favor of increased quality of care for veterans, a cost of living adjustment for disabled veterans, and policies to address veteran suicides, I had a yellow rose on the lapel of my suit. My colleagues and I in the U.S. House of Representatives wore yellow roses all day to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the U.S. House’s historic vote to ratify the 19th Amendment and the women who fought, worked for, suffered, and even did prison time to make it possible.

As I walked out of the House Chamber Tuesday, I walked past a monument to the pioneers of the women’s suffrage movement. In the Rotunda of the United States Capitol is a 14,000-pound marble sculpture depicting Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. One unchiseled figure of marble sits behind these giants of women’s history as if the sculptor, Adelaide Johnson, left the work unfinished as to signify the women and the work who would come after them to ensure women are heard. When I look at that unfinished piece of marble, I think about the 68 million women who participate in our elections today and the historic number of women I serve with in the U.S. House of Representatives.