Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A Special Delivery

By Jackson Baker

JUNE 29, 1998: 

The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage
By Carol Lynn Yellin and Janann Sherman, edited by Ilene Jones-Cornwell
Serviceberry Press, 160 pp., $24.95 (paper)

The Perfect 36 is perfect.

That, in a nutshell, is the review of this handsome and informative text – brand-new but, as they say, years in the making – that chronicles the coming to America of women’s suffrage through action in the Tennessee General Assembly. But in truest pyramid style, we continue: There is, after all, much more to say – not only about the book but about the history it so revealingly depicts.

It has been more than three-quarters of a century since a special session of our state’s legislature in 1920 completed ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. We are so used to living with the advantages of women’s suffrage – better candidates, a more intense scrutiny of issues, and an attitude toward government that is at once more practical and more idealistic – that we could overlook (if, indeed, we ever knew it) how difficult and extended the process of getting the vote for women was and what a close-run thing the final showdown was.

Enter authors Carol Lynn Yellin and Janann Sherman and editor Ilene Jones-Cornwell, who have given us a fairly complete record of all this in The Perfect 36 (the number signifies Tennessee’s key place in the sequence of ratification). The book profits from their obvious craft, diligence, and historical sense – as well as from the enthusiasm and persistence of activist Paula Casey, “without whose valiant perseverance, equaling that of our suffragist foremothers, this book would never have become a reality,” as Yellin and Sherman say on the dedication page.

Though published locally, the book has a mainline look and feel and is equally suitable for a library shelf, a work desk, or a coffee table. Glossy of page, ample of illustration, and thorough of treatment, it is indispensable as a guide not only to the background of the suffrage movement – local, state, and national – but to the relevant worldwide historical contexts.

And there are eye-openers on every page. It is all well and good to read again about 24-year-old Harry T. Burn of Mouse Creek (Niota) in East Tennessee, who honored a promise to his mother and, as a member of the House of Representatives, cast the vote that broke a 48-48 tie and put suffrage over the top in the General Assembly. But how many of us had known much about Memphis’ own Joe Hanover, a Polish immigrant and night-school law graduate who ran for his seat in the legislature expressly in order to vote for the 19th amendment?

And it’s reassuring, in a time that ritually trashes the Establishmentarians of our local past, to learn that not only was editor C.P.J. Mooney of The Commercial Appeal a determined supporter of ratification but so was U.S. Senator Kenneth McKellar, the Memphian who later became Speaker Pro Tem of the Senate and a major national mover and shaker under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And that Edward Hull “Boss Ed” Crump, who ruled local politics and virtually hand-picked all members of the General Assembly from Memphis, was a member of the statewide Men’s Ratification Committee and made sure that Shelby County legislators voted 100 percent in favor of suffrage.

In this volume, there are countless such vignettes, as well as a full bibliography, cartoons, photographs, and relevant pages from contemporary newspapers. (Many of the abundantly supplied graphics of The Perfect 36 – including several gorgeous layouts in full color – were first seen locally in the 1995 University of Memphis exhibit, also titled “The Perfect 36.”)

One of the outstanding accomplishments of the volume is that, in addition to the voluminous record it presents of the suffrage movement and its historic antecedents, it also includes fair and reasonably complete accounts of the arguments made by the opponents of suffrage.

Those arguments were discarded long ago, but not without the difficult political struggle memorialized in this volume. The Perfect 36 has three forewords – by Governor Don Sundquist and Martha Sundquist; by Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout; and by State Senator Steve Cohen. The Sundquists and Rout are political conservatives; Cohen is generally regarded as a liberal. Between them they represent a wide-ranging political mainstream that would be inconceivably poorer without the invigorating currents brought in by women’s suffrage.

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