By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller
One hundred years ago this month, American women achieved the right to vote. August 2020 marks the ratification anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
August 2020 also marks five months and counting of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost three months of protests following the death of George Floyd and less than three months until the U.S. presidential election.
Upheaval and uncertainty are nothing new to our city or our nation. For more than 271 years, Alexandria’s female residents have persisted through wars, disease and free elections – including the 1920 U.S. presidential election, the first national political contest in which women could cast their ballots.
Alexandria played its part in the women’s movement and eventual success of the passage of the amendment. Leading social rights activists from our city served in civilian and military jobs during World War I, nursed victims of the 1918 flu pandemic and helped pave the way for women’s enfranchisement.
First-time female voters in the city turned out in large numbers at the polls Nov. 2, 1920. According to the Nov. 3, 1920 Alexandria Gazette, “The women voted in large numbers and fully three-fourths of the number qualified took part in the election. … There are 4,250 qualified voters in the city, of which number 1,399 are women.”
The 19th Amendment reads, “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.” Following more than a century of protests and petitions, these words were ratified Aug. 18, 1920 by the state of Tennessee. Tennessee became the 36th state – the majority needed from what was then the continental 48 – to put the amendment over the top.
A young legislator ended up playing a major role in the summer heat of the special session. Representatives had adopted the habit of wearing of red roses on their lapels if they were against women’s voting rights and yellow roses if they were pro-ratification.
On the Tennessee House Floor – after several tied votes to table the legislation – Junior Statesman Harry T. Burn, 24, displayed the red rose on his jacket. Hidden from sight in his jacket pocket was a letter he had recently received from his mother.
On page two of the seven-page note, she had written, “Hurrah and vote for suffrage.” On page six, she instructed Harry to “Be a good boy” in advocating for women. Young Harry Burn listened to his mother and shouted “aye” to the vote that changed history.
Eight days later, on Aug. 26, the 19th Amendment was certified by U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby, making the adoption of the amendment official. Every year on this date, the nation recognizes Women’s Equality Day.
When and how did the Commonwealth of Virginia vote in the ratification process? Along with other American women, Virginia women gained the right to vote in August 1920 – but it took 32 years for the Virginia General Assembly to ratify the 19th Amendment.
While August 2020 in America will be remembered for its pandemic, politics and protests, it will also be measured by the resiliency and spirit of its citizens. We have reason to celebrate the national ratification anniversary. One of the best ways to honor the brave Alexandrians who fought for voting rights is by registering to vote.
The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit that is commemorating the centennial of women’s suffrage and highlighting influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at AlexandriaCelebratesWomen@gmail.com.