Like most Witches, I celebrate eight high holy days — the Sabbats — that mark how the seasons shift from dark, to light, to more light, to equal, to dark, to more dark, to equal, to light.
But there are other days that I celebrate, as well. I celebrate Arbor Day, April 26th, a day dedicated to trees. It’s just a few days past another of my celebrations, Earth Day, April 22nd, a day dedicated to the planet that is the base of our existence. I celebrate Clara Barton’s birthday because she was an early hera of mine and I celebrate Labor Day, when we honor the contributions of America’s workers and unions.
And, no surprise, I celebrate May 21st, the day when the United States Congress passed the 19th Amendment , which, after almost an entire century of protest, and following the Amendment’s ratification by 36 states, gave women the right to vote.
The final state to ratify the Amendment was Tennessee.
Minutes after Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment, essentially ending American women’s decades-long quest for the right to vote, a young man with a red rose [symbol of denying women the right to vote] pinned to his lapel fled to the attic of the state capitol and camped out there until the maddening crowds downstairs dispersed. Some say he crept onto a third-floor ledge to escape an angry mob of anti-suffragist lawmakers threatening to rough him up.
The date was August 18, 1920, and the man was Harry Burn, a 24-year-old representative from East Tennessee who two years earlier had become the youngest member of the state legislature. The red rose signified his opposition to the proposed 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which stated that “[t]he 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.” By the summer of 1920, 35 states had ratified the measure, bringing it one vote short of the required 36. In Tennessee, it had sailed through the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives, prompting thousands of pro- and anti-suffrage activists to descend upon Nashville. If Burn and his colleagues voted in its favor, the 19th Amendment would pass the final hurdle on its way to adoption.
After weeks of intense lobbying and debate within the Tennessee legislature, a motion to table the amendment was defeated with a 48-48 tie. The speaker called the measure to a ratification vote. To the dismay of the many suffragists who had packed into the capitol with their yellow roses, sashes[,] and signs, it seemed certain that the final roll call would maintain the deadlock. But that morning, Harry Burn—who until that time had fallen squarely in the anti-suffrage camp—received a note from his mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn, known to her family and friends as Miss Febb. In it, she had written, “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet.” She ended the missive with a rousing endorsement of the great suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt, imploring her son to “be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”
Still sporting his red boutonniere but clutching his mother’s letter, Burn said “aye” so quickly that it took his fellow legislators a few moments to register his unexpected response. With that single syllable he extended the vote to the women of America and ended half a century of tireless campaigning by generations of suffragists, including Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns and, of course, Mrs. Catt. (“To get the word ‘male’ in effect out of the Constitution cost the women of this country 52 years of pauseless campaign,” Catt wrote in her 1923 book, “Woman Suffrage and Politics.”) He also invoked the fury of his red rose-carrying peers while presumably avoiding that of his mother—which may very well have been the more daunting of the two.
The next day, Burn defended his last-minute reversal in a speech to the assembly. For the first time, he publicly expressed his personal support of universal suffrage, declaring, “I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify.” But he also made no secret of Miss Febb’s influence—and her crucial role in the story of women’s rights in the United States. “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow,” he explained, “and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”
Voting is almost always a pretty emotional experience for me.
As woman who spends all day listening to her ancestors (oh, trust me, they’re a talkative bunch; I come from the tribe of People Who Cannot Ever Shut the Fuck Up and they have opinions on how to make the bed, how to weed the herb garden, whether to skip lines between entries in my checkbook register, how to brew nettle tea, and whether or not I am doing my morning meditation “right”), going to vote goes like this for me: Great, great, many-times great grandmothers, aunties, cousins, distant cousins all show up at the door to the poll, perch on my shoulder, and expect to be noticed. “Hey, are you here to vote? I never got to do that; can I do it this time? Just step aside for a minute, Sweetie.” “Me, me, I want to do it, me!” “Hey, I am the one who knows what’s going on. Give me that pencil thing, OK? I’m totally going to vote this time.” “I’ll just look over your shoulder, OK? OK? And, well, are you going to mark the ballot for that person? Because she seems good.” Sometimes, I get out with my “I Voted” sticker before I start to cry and sometimes not. It won’t surprise you to learn that those stickers get saved for my most desperate rituals.
There’s a wonderful quote from Hebrews 12:1 (I know, right?) that says:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
And that’s how it is for me when I go to vote, which, in Virginia, we do about twice a year. There is this great cloud of witnesses — my female ancestors going back for thousands and thousands of years — demanding that I throw off everything that hinders and entangles women and that I, instead, “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
So here’s to the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment, when women wrestled the right to vote away from the Patriarchy.
I will always be grateful to the women who were force-fed, beaten, intimidated, and imprisoned to win this right for me.
And, I will never forget my great-great-many-times-great descendants who demand of me that I vote every single time to make the Patriarchy desperately sorry that I ever wrested the right to vote from their knuckled hands. I’m going to show up in your polling places, too.
You know I am.