Documentary to Highlight Tennessee's Role in Women's Suffrage Movement

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

One young man from McMinn County forever altered the course of American history when decided to listen to his mother.

On an August day in 1920, Harry Burn - the Tennessee General Assembly's youngest member - cast a vote in favor of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. His vote broke a 48-48 tie in the General Assembly.

That made Tennessee the 36th state to ratify the amendment, which clinched its inclusion in the U.S. Constitution.

The amendment gave women the right to vote for the first time. And Burn, who had been opposed to the amendment, admitted that he changed his mind after receiving a note from his mother encouraging him to vote yes.

That dramatic vote, and the years of debate about women's suffrage that preceded it, are being recounted in a documentary by Nashville film producer Yoshie Lewis.

Lewis and her associate producer Brian Allison recently visited the Tennessee State Library and Archives to look for visual content related to the suffrage movement and the era in which it occurred. Some of the documents and photos they viewed at the State Library and Archives will appear in "Perfect 36," the documentary that's scheduled for release next year.

Lewis said her interest in the local suffrage movement was piqued when she heard a talk about the history of the Hermitage Hotel, a site where both pro- and anti-suffragists gathered in the run-up to the 1920 vote.

"I felt like (the documentary) was the right fit for me," said Lewis, whose Nashville-based company, Pretzel Pictures, is working on the project. "As a woman and a Nashvillian, I felt like I was a good candidate to tell this story."

Lewis said she and her team have spent five years researching the topic. Given the impact the 19th Amendment has had on American politics and government, she said she was surprised to learn that apparently no one has produced a full-length documentary on the subject before.

"It is a story of national importance," Lewis said. "I'm absolutely stunned that no one has done it."

Nashville will be prominently featured in the documentary, but other significant events in the suffrage movement that happened elsewhere will also be covered.

"The story didn't start here, but it ended here," Lewis said.

Although the story about the amendment's passage is full of "drama and humor," Lewis said the documentary will take an academic approach to recounting what happened.

American Public Television has agreed to distribute the documentary nationwide to PBS network stations that are interested in airing it. The plan is for a March 2016 release to coincide with Women's History Month in the presidential election year.

There is also a feature film in development based on the suffrage movement. Although the production schedule for the feature film is somewhat tentative, Lewis and Allison are working to coordinate distribution at or around 2020, the 100-year anniversary of Tennessee's ratification vote.

Allison said the film will focus more on the human drama of the story as seen through the characters' eyes.

Documents readily available for viewing, free of charge, at the State Library and Archives help to set the scene of what life was like in Nashville during that period in history, Allison said.

"It's amazing to have a resource where I can walk in, pull up microfilm, and leave with a wealth of knowledge," Allison said.

Secretary Hargett said he's always pleased to hear comments like that about the State Library and Archives.

"I'm proud that the State Library and Archives has been and continues to be an important resource for researchers who want to learn more about various topics related to Tennessee history," Secretary Hargett said. "Tennessee's ratification of the 19th Amendment was one of the prouder moments in our state's history and it is certainly a worthy subject for a documentary."

To view the State Libary and Archives' online exhibit about the suffrage movement, go to: http://www.state.tn.us/tsla/exhibits/suffrage/index.htm


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