Paula Casey, a former journalist, longtime political activist, and author whose attention to women's issues spans decades, insists that "suffragists" and not "suffragettes" is the correct term for the American pioneers whose concerted effort resulted 90 years ago this week in the extension of full voting rights to women everywhere in the United States.
And indeed Casey's preference would seem appropriately gender-inclusive for a movement which turned on a last-minute decision by a young Tennessee legislator, state representative Harry Burn of McMinn County, to heed his mother's advice and cast the crucial vote that made Tennessee the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment. That tale, along with the rest of the dramatic story of the struggle for gender equality, is told in The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage, the 1998 book, co-authored by Janann Sherman of the University of Memphis and the late Carol Yellin, for which Casey served as editorial coordinator.
By whatever name, the heroic personalities whose efforts culminated in that dramatic leap of justice in August 1920 deserve to be celebrated, and celebrated they are this week in several events, culminating with a commemorative ceremony, co-sponsored by Mayor A C Wharton and a consortium of women's organizations, scheduled for Thursday in the Hall of Mayors at City Hall. The week of celebrations began on Monday with a special citation by the Shelby County Commission in honor of Alma Law, the first woman member of the old Shelby County Court, the legislative organization which was precursor, first, to the Shelby County Quarterly Court, and then to the current county commission itself.
Casey took part, along with fellow activists Happy Jones and Jocelyn Wurzburg, and several of Alma Law's descendants. Among them, appropriately enough, was Jonathan Cole, Law's great grandson and a pathfinder in his own right. Cole is chairman of the board of the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), which is committed to another struggle for equality, analogous in many ways to that of the suffragists, which had been scheduled for action this week.
What the TEP and its supporters have been seeking is an acknowledgment of the full equality before the law of gays, lesbians, and transgendered persons, and the unfinished task before them is the passage of ordinances on the City Council and the County Commission which would prohibit discrimination in the workplace on grounds of sexual orientation or identity. An ordinance to that effect was introduced in the commission last year and, after meeting with resistance, was amended to the status of a resolution that omitted reference to specific classes of persons. Commissioner Steve Mulroy, sponsor of the original ordinance, has indicated he plans to try again this year.
Meanwhile, over at the council, the much-beleaguered Janis Fullilove had sponsored an ordinance very like Mulroy's original one, and, at the cost of much in the way of threats and abuse, had brought it to the brink of passage. Her measure had been due for a vote on final passage on September 14th but was temporarily withdrawn at TEP's request. It will return, we trust, when a more favorable climate permits. We believe the council must and ultimately will connect the dots linking one act of delayed justice to another, ongoing one.