Women’s History Month Spotlight: Jennifer Watson

  • Mar 28, 2019
  • Jennifer Watson, Emerge Tennessee 2019 Program Member

Phoebe Burn, a Tennessee mother, changed the course of history. It was August 18, 1920, and a joint resolution for women’s suffrage was on the table in the Tennessee House of Representatives. The resolution had already passed through the Senate and Tennessee was on the verge of becoming the 36th state to vote for the ratification of the 19th amendment. The ratification resolution was one vote short.

Phoebe’s son Harry T. Burn, a 24-year old representative from east Tennessee, had previously worn a ruby red anti-suffragist rose on his lapel. However, on the day of the final vote, he carried a letter from his mother in his pocket.

“Hurrah, and vote suffrage,” Phoebe wrote.

Representative Burn went on to cast the deciding vote, a vote that delivered 17 million women from a century and a half of imperfect citizenship.  “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification,” he later explained. While a mother’s advice certainly tipped the scales in our favor, Mrs. Burn’s letter was only the bookend to a dedicated movement of Tennessee women who organized and advocated for suffrage for over 30 years. Their hard work led to Tennessee being heralded as the Perfect 36, the final state required to ratify the 19th amendment, which gave women nationwide the right to vote.

As you well know, the women’s rights movement did not end with the suffragists. American women have advocated for education, equal rights under the law, freedom from sexual violence, reproductive rights, the right to work, and fair wages, all while being grossly underrepresented in elected offices.  These battles continue today because progress has never been promised to us and women must be ever vigilant to avoid backsliding.

For example, the male-dominated House in the Tennessee State Legislature recently gained national attention for passing one of the most restrictive abortion measures in our nation. This “heartbeat bill” that will outlaw abortion after 6 weeks and there are no exceptions for rape or incest. It gives a 6-week old fetus, which has only unorganized, unconscious neurological activity, a moral status equivalent to a fully-formed human being, regardless of whether that human being is a 16-year-old girl preparing for college or a traumatized rape victim. This unconstitutional legislation removes women’s autonomy and dignity.  Women are literally standing against it. Representative Gloria Johnson stood for 45 minutes without ever being permitted to enter the floor debate and make her concerns about the bill heard.

Our state legislature ignores the problems that confront Tennesseans every day in favor of scoring points in the so-called culture war at great expense to our citizens.  Our leaders have made Tennessee a partisan battleground. They are intent on shutting down evidence-based dialogue, or any dialogue for that matter.

Take the state of our citizens’ health.  Tennessee is one of the unhealthiest states in the union and almost 7% of our residents are uninsured due to poverty. Ten rural hospitals have closed due to inadequate funding. While our governor has proposed focus groups to “study” the issue, the Republican members of the legislature have proposed ineffective short-term solutions. It seems that some of our representatives would rather not compromise than consider the Affordable Care Act’s optional Medicaid expansion. Not only would Medicaid expansion ensure 300,000 more Tennesseans and protect rural hospitals, it would also likely lead to a general decrease in premiums.

Further, our state is battling an unprecedented drug epidemic. At the height of the epidemic, Tennessee was the second state in the union for prescriptions written per-capita with 1.4 prescriptions given per citizen. Instead of investing in its communities–as was done in Ohio, where Medicaid expansion led to 96% of enrollees receiving addiction treatment- the Tennessee legislature opted to criminalize addiction. One proposed bill aimed to jail women whose babies are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a treatable, temporary condition that occurs due to withdrawal from an addictive substance. When one considers that addiction is a long-term neurological disorder that commonly develops as a coping mechanism due to untreated trauma, it appears that our legislature is determined to punish, rather than treat, our most vulnerable citizens.

Voting is not enough; sometimes we must stand in the face of determined opposition, and we are obligated to show up. My application to Emerge was my first step towards becoming fully civically engaged and better prepared to tackle the problems that face the people of Tennessee. The under-representation of women in politics denies us their talents, experience and empathy, wasting a critical resource for framing our future and producing the solutions that our families deserve. As a scientist, I strive to use data and analysis to systematically find solutions. Training with Emerge has enabled me to identify how I can use these skills to fill in the gaps in our society, stand shoulder to shoulder with other women to enact positive change and strive towards decency, justice, and equity for all.