Have you heard the story of the young legislator who was the hero of Tennessee’s ratification of the 19th Amendment?
I’m not talking about Harry Burn.
Harry Burn has gotten way more ink than he’s due. He was a young member of the Tenn. Assembly who was noncommittal about suffrage. At the last minute he cast a pivotal vote in favor of ratification, crediting a letter from his mother that said “be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt.”
Changing your mind when you realize you are on the wrong side of history is a marvelous thing -- that’s the value of telling Harry Burn’s story. But if you are looking for a male hero of the Tennessee ratification fight, meet “suffragent” Joe Hanover.
Men who supported women’s voting rights were known playfully as suffragents. This sounded clever when men were called “gents.” Today it reads as though they were women’s agents -- which of course they were, as no women could vote on suffrage bills.
During Tennessee’s month-long battle to become the state to ratify the 19th Amendment, Joe Hanover was the second-youngest member of the state’s General Assembly. (Harry Burn was youngest.)
He was one of two Jews in the all-white, all-male legislature, and an immigrant.
Joe was about 11 when his family immigrated from Poland. The story goes that when learning about American democracy with his parents, he asked: “Why can’t Mother vote?” He became a talented lawyer, and won a seat in the Assembly representing Memphis.
When suffragists needed a capable floor whip for the ratification fight, Hanover stepped up. There were plenty of rotten men in the House, including the Speaker, who had double-crossed suffragists at the last minute. The vote was going to be very, very close.
Hanover spent weeks corralling reluctant legislators, calling in favors, and fighting off entrapment and bribery. He got death threats and antisemitic slurs, and the governor assigned him a state trooper as a bodyguard.
When a pro-suffrage legislator left Nashville because his wife was ill, Hanover found a wealthy supporter to charter a return train. But to no avail - going into the final vote, on August 18, 1920, Hanover knew they were two votes short.
Every member of the General Assembly knew that the ratification of the 19th Amendment hung in the balance. Everyone in Tennessee and around the nation knew it.
Two men changed their votes that day: first Harry Burn, and then - with the vote tied 48 to 48 - a member from western Tennessee named Banks Turner spoke up at the very last moment to vote “aye.” Suffrage had passed.
Elaine Weiss @efweiss5 describes the scene: “The chamber shook with screams and cries, with thumping and whooping...There was weeping among both men and women. Joe Hanover was mobbed like the winning pitcher of a ball game.”
The story of Harry Burn’s last minute change of heart has been celebrated ad nauseum. @gailcollins is particularly fond of him. Making Burn the hero of ratification obscures the work of the women in TN and elsewhere whose accomplishment it really was.
But if you’re looking for a gent who worked hard and truly delivered for women, try Joe Hanover.