Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Written by Cherry Fisher May

The success of women in the workforce changed the history of our country.

As we were going to press with this publication of ABiz — the annual issue in which we pay tribute to Acadiana’s women business and professional leaders — our nation was celebrating the 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave women in the U.S. the right to vote. Since our state initially rejected the amendment in 1920 and didn’t get around to passing it until 1970, it’s a celebration that Louisianians technically won’t be able to observe until 2060. We weren’t the last, though; North Carolina was close behind Louisiana, finally adopting it the following year, and Mississippi was once again the caboose, making it part of its constitution in 1984. Women there get to wait another 14 years.

Although eight of the last nine states that postponed ratification of the amendment until after 1920 were all Southern, Tennessee provided the deciding 36th vote when it mattered most on Aug. 18, 1920, but just barely. After multiple deadlocked ballots, a good ole boy named Harry T. Burns from McMinn County did what his mother told him and changed sides from “nay” to “yea,” putting Tennessee in the ratification camp by one slim vote. A week later, the Tennessee secretary of state certified the amendment’s adoption, and the fate of women everywhere in our country — indeed the future of our nation — was changed forever.

It was in part the role of women in the workforce that helped changed the minds of many of the nation’s leaders of the day to support voting rights for women. As they would later in WWII, women played key roles in the successful execution of the first World War, and President Woodrow Wilson emerged as a strong supporter of the suffrage movement. When given the chance, women proved themselves as laborers in factories, as clerks, managers, journalists, lawyers and other non-traditional female roles. And women continue to do it today as we pursue a growing range of career paths and break more and more glass ceilings along the way.

Who knows how long it would have taken for women to earn this fundamental right of democracy had it not been for the opportunity to prove ourselves on the job? And as an aside and true GRITS (girl raised in the South), I’m amazed in some ways that it was our region of the country that lagged in ratification. There are no stronger women anywhere than here in the South. And we know how to raise good sons. Harry T. Burns proved that when he did what his momma told him and put Tennessee on the right side of history.

Each year when we publish the Women Who Mean Business issue, I’m amazed at the accomplishments and careers of distinction exemplified by the honorees, both past and present. It seems that I get more comments about this issue and the accompanying luncheon than anything else we produce. Young women find the stories motivational as they struggle to balance their own careers and families. The more mature among us often nod our heads, knowingly, as the tales are told. The annual luncheon, slated this year for Thursday, Sept. 16, is one of the most inspiring events we produce, and it’s an honor to share the stories of such deserving women with their peers in the audience and among our readers. I hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoy researching and producing them to share with you.

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