How women got the vote (with my uncle’s help)

By Jacqueline White Kochak

I like to say my grandmother’s uncle won women the right to vote.

The state of American politics these days has got me ruminating about the uncle who died six years before I was born—a minor character in the drama of history, a forgotten footnote to a very important chapter.

He’s also my hero, a testament to the consequences of personal and political courage.


I pray that today’s legislators will learn to be true leaders—and be willing to pay the price.


Albert Houston Roberts was first a schoolteacher, then an attorney, then governor of Tennessee. He took office in 1919—just in time to help change history.

That year, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, 39 straightforward words that inflamed passions nationwide. If ratified by 36 states, the amendment would enfranchise women.

One by one, 35 states signed. One more was needed to complete the “Perfect 36,” but none of the recalcitrant Southern or Western states looked ready to budge.

August 1920 was muggy in Nashville. If Tennessee failed to pass the amendment in special session, it likely would die. Family lore says Roberts passionately believed women should vote. Opposition in Tennessee ran high, so Roberts called in every favor and used every ounce of influence to force the issue. In a close vote, the measure passed.

As a child, I discounted the story. My children still do. But journalist that I am I sensed a story. I wrote to American Heritage magazine, suggesting I research the story and record the process.

If the editor deigned to answer, I expected a thin letter. Instead, I got a thick packet. The story—far more dramatic than I imagined—already had been written.

That oppressive summer, the nation focused attention on Nashville, which teemed with reporters from New York, Chicago, Washington and Boston. Suffragists wrote letters, staged rallies and canvassed legislators. Telegrams shot back and forth between the White House and the State House in Nashville. Tempers flared.

Supporters wore yellow roses. Those opposed wore red. Legislators showed their sentiments by pinning roses to their lapels—and the roses showed the amendment would be defeated, 49-47.

A motion to table was defeated when one legislator switched sides. A vote on the amendment was called, and again legislators split, 48-48. A second vote was called, and young Harry Burn—red rose pinned brazenly to his collar—broke the deadlock and voted to enfranchise women. Pandemonium erupted, and Burn climbed out a a third-floor window to escape the mob. He hid in the Capitol attic.

Later, Burn explained that he wore a red rose, but in his pocket he carried his mother’s telegram. His mother’s wishes won out over political expediency and superficial coalitions. He voted for the controversial amendment.

The battle wasn’t over, however. Opponents managed to delay official ratification. Anti-suffrage legislators fled the state to avoid a quorum, and their associates held massive rallies. The coalition held, however, and Tennessee reaffirmed the vote.

On Aug. 28, my uncle signed the bill. Two days later, women earned the constitutional right that white men had possessed since the nation was born, and that black men had possessed since the 1860s.

What did Roberts’ courage win him? Absolutely nothing, in the pragmatists’s view. He’s not mentioned in the history books. Family legend says he was considered for inclusion in Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage but missed the cut. He failed in his bid for re-election and took up the practice of law with his son in Nashville.

He left a legacy, however, a legacy of which his family, his state and his country can be proud. Now, as a government shutdown threatens and rumors of corruption are rampant, I pray that our legislators will become true leaders—and be willing to pay the price.

Photo: Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts (1868–1946) certifying the state’s ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920. Memphis suffragist Charl Williams stands watching. Photo credit: Nashville Tennessean (in the Tennessee State Library and Archives).

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Remembering the World Trade Center

This was written one day after 9/11 and published two days later. I think it is worth remembering the raw anguish of that terrible day.


By Jacqueline Kochak

I want you to see the World Trade Center through my eyes.

I lived in metropolitan New York City for 17 years. My children were born there and grew up exploring lower Manhattan. I want you to see the World Trade Center through their eyes.

To understand the importance of this landmark to the city—we always called it “the City,” with a capital C—you have to understand the geography of Manhattan.

Manhattan lies at the center of a vast metropolitan area, stretching west into New Jersey, north into the foothills of the Catskills and east onto Long Island. The other four boroughs are congested and heavily ethnic, full of neat small homes bursting with barely assimilated Italian, Polish, Jewish and Irish families, along with a smattering of Germans and a little bit of every other nationality on earth, just for spice.

If you’re a fan of old movies, think John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, not Woody Allen in Manhattan.


I hear that Liberty Park, where we once boarded the ferry from Jersey, is a morgue now. Those rude cabbies, Americans after all, are ripping out their back seats to carry bodies to the ferry.


The island of Manhattan is different. Manhattan is the city of our dreams, the city we love to hate, where skyscrapers rise to breathtaking heights and green space is limited to a generous series of parks. The streets are clogged with honking cabbies, trucks belching exhaust fumes and exasperated businessmen trying to get across town.

Manhattan is raucous yet refined, bumptious yet big-hearted. This is a young, vigorous city that has welcomed immigrants since its birth. Those immigrants have produced offspring just assimilated enough to move to the suburbs, and their descendants have percolated out into the rest of the country.

Every language on earth can be heard on the streets of Manhattan. You’re lucky if you catch a cabbie who speaks adequate English, but the street vendors selling pretzels, Nathan’s hot dogs, knishes and exotic delicacies are priceless.

The city itself is a patchwork of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct personality. To the north, along the East River, is the tony Upper East Side, home to the wealthy. Across vast Central Park is the funkier Upper West Side, home to the up-and-coming. Below Central Park, the broad boulevards of a great metropolis sweep southward. At the heart of Midtown is Times Square.

After running straight as an arrow from Harlem south, the boulevards lose their confidence somewhere below 14th Street and prove no match for the tourists’ favorite haunt, Greenwich Village, or its grimier cousin, the East Village. Lower still, there’s little planning in Chinatown or the Lower East Side—and stay out of Alphabet City, locals will warn you.

The massive bulk of the World Trade Center’s twin towers once loomed over lower Manhattan, shading the world’s financial nerve center, Wall Street. The buildings were so enormous, so dazzling, so overwhelming that only American wealth—and American hubris—could have dreamed them and built them.

Here, the American colossus flexed its muscle. American business ruled the world—still does, I guess—and the World Trade Center was a shrine to newness, bigness, brashness and brawn. Underneath the giant towers, the subways converged at a major station. Above, several floors of shops and restaurants comprised the ultimate shopping center. Above that rose floor after floor of offices occupied by the best and brightest of the business world.

The top of one tower was a favorite destination for tourists and school groups. I can’t forget the clusters of schoolchildren who made regular pilgrimages up to the observation deck, to “ooh” and “aah” at the spectacular skyline.

The air in lower Manhattan is salt-tinged, because the island juts into New York Harbor where the Statue of Liberty raises her beacon. I hear that Liberty Park, where we once boarded the ferry from Jersey, is a morgue now. Those rude cabbies, Americans after all, are ripping out their back seats to carry bodies to the ferry.

People keep comparing this to Pearl Harbor. They’re wrong in a way, because the casualties are much higher and they’re civilians. They’re right in a way, too, because Pearl Harbor woke up a sleeping giant. Once again we are feeling our power.