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Walking Through Suffrage History

An interview with Susan Ware

As we near 100th anniversary of the Women’s Suffrage Amendment, the new book by historian Susan Ware , Why They Marched: Untold Stories of Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote, is an unusual retelling of a familiar story – familiar at least to me, until I read this book. This is, in fact, a compilation of untold stories of suffrage activism seen through people, places and, particularly, objects. With a seeming urgency to move beyond what she calls an “outdated” and relentlessly chronological approach from Seneca Falls in 1848 to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Susan Ware has placed suffrage activity firmly “on the ground.” Ware demonstrates that activism was far more broadly based, and more diverse than we have been led to believe. Demands for the suffrage were nationwide she writes, and “impossible to escape” by the first decade of the 20th century. The inclusion of a unique artifact in each chapter adds depth to this old-new story and helps to contextualize the experiences and the spirit of the myriad of women who joined in the demand for the vote. – Elaine S. Abelson

Elaine S. Abelson [ESA]: Susan, this walk-through suffrage history has been fascinating for me. I teach the history of American women and thought I knew this history. Turns out I knew only ‘the highlights.’ Many of your stories surprised me for two reasons. First was the depth of your research – literally digging out the stories of largely unknown individuals and the artifacts which help to illuminate their stories. I’m thinking of Claiborne Catlin, the suffragist who rode a horse on a four-month pilgrimage across Massachusetts in 1914 to push for the vote. Another is Hazel Hunkins, a disappointed chemist and suffrage organizer from Montana, who received the National Women’s Party ‘prison pin’ after being jailed for picketing in front of the White House in the summer and fall of 1917. Uncovering the sheer diversity of these women and the stories of the personal transformations of unknown activists propel your narrative in multiple directions – quite the opposite of the familiar trajectory of women’s suffrage story telling. Second was the breadth of your story telling. I keep thinking of your account of Mary Church Terrell, “Die Negerin,” at the International Council of Women in Berlin, speaking in German and positing an intersectional vision of race and gender in 1904 – a tableaux which is quite breathtaking in its modern implications. Can you say something about your methodology – how you were able to pull this immense story together? Can you tell us how you tied the objects to the individuals and made sense of what appears to be a vast array of memorabilia?

Susan Ware [SW]: I’ve always been a big fan of how Laurel Thatcher Ulrich uses material culture to make history come alive, and my original idea for the book was to tell the history of women’s suffrage through objects. Unfortunately, I quickly found that it was not that easy (at least, not for me) to write about objects. And I missed having actual women to anchor my stories, so I tilted in the other direction and decided to write the history through the lens of individual lives. Only fairly late in the game did I realize that I could combine both approaches by pairing each suffrage story with a suffrage artifact or object. I hope this is literally the best of both worlds.

As to my methodology and selection process, the key is to follow the trail to the rich suffrage archives of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, where I have been affiliated for most of my career. I already knew some of the characters from earlier projects but was excited to find many new ones. Schlesinger staff members pointed me towards favorite artifacts and objects. But I did not limit myself to Schlesinger resources, which allowed me to search more broadly, especially in the field of African American history. As a biographer, I was always on the lookout for good stories that would make the history come alive for my readers. That, as well as a commitment to representing the breadth and diversity of the movement across race and geography, drove my selection process.

While I organized the book in a generally chronological fashion and assumed the chapters would be read in that order, I also realized that the suffrage stories could stand on their own and be sampled in any order the reader chose. There is also a way that the descriptions of the objects can be read collectively to provide a fairly synthetic view of the women’s suffrage movement. This can be seen in practice in the “Visualizing Votes for Women: Nineteen Objects from the 19th Amendment Campaign”, a web exhibit that I developed as a companion to my book,.

ESA: There are 19 chapters in the book with 19 individuals through whom you tell the story of suffrage activism from 1849-1919. Obviously, the number 19 is a symbolic yet pointed reference to the 19th Amendment. Was it difficult to come up with 19 equally important and interesting subjects and to find the object to illustrate each individual? Were there still others you might have used?

SW: It was like a giant juggling process. I literally “auditioned” characters and objects for the book, choosing some and discarding others. I knew from the start that I wanted to include stories of African American suffragists, so that was a top priority. So too was geographical diversity — I wanted to move the story beyond the East Coast-based national organizations that usually drive the narrative. I wanted to include men as well as women, and also the anti-suffrage perspective. Finally I had to construct a narrative where each chapter built on what had come before to propel the story forward chronologically. While my heart is in the twentieth century part of the story, I realized that the nineteenth century beginnings were essential to ground the history. So again, it was one huge balancing act.

My one regret is that I could have opened the book with the story of Virginia Minor, who was the plaintiff in a major 1875 Supreme Court case which argued unsuccessfully that women as citizens were enfranchised by the Fourteenth Amendment, instead of Susan B. Anthony’s better-known story about casting a ballot in the 1872 election in Rochester which covers similar legal ground. That way every one of my stories would have been told through the lens of what I think of as foot soldiers rather than the generals. But I realized that the drama of the Anthony story would be a perfect way to launch the narrative and capture my readers’ attention. Even though that story was well known to me, I also realized that it would be new to most of my readers so that’s how Susan B. Anthony made the cut.

ESA: You use the term Prosopography to describe these overlapping biographical stories. I don’t think this is a familiar term to many readers. Why did you choose to use it, and what does it really mean in this context?

SW: Prosopography is a bit of a mouthful (I had to listen to its pronunciation on Google to teach myself how to say it correctly) but basically it is a fancy word for collective biography. For almost my entire career as a feminist historian, I have been drawn to biography as a way to connect individual lives with larger historical questions. Generally I have focused on a single character like New Dealer reformer Molly Dewson, aviator Amelia Earhart, radio talk show pioneer Mary Margaret McBride, or tennis great Billie Jean King to open out their stories to engage with the broader historical context of areas such as women in politics, the history of aviation or radio, or the history of women’s sports. I also once did a collective biography of seven women who shaped the 20th century, but that really wasn’t a model for this book of suffrage stories, which features so many more characters and objects. The trick is to make sure that the whole will add up to more than the sum of its parts.

ESA: One of the most interesting questions you pose is why the suffrage movement is seen as less important historically than either the Anti-Slavery or the Civil Rights movements. You say the decades-long fight for suffrage is not thought to be central to the ongoing struggle for equal rights and social justice in the United States. I agree with your interpretation and, like you, have been troubled by it. Can you say more about why you think this is the case? You write that large parts of the country were unsympathetic, even hostile to the idea of suffrage. ‘Votes for Women ’ was a transgressive idea, even a joke for decades, yet it confronts the meaning of full citizenship and certainly social justice as both Sojourner Truth understood it in the 1850s and Ida Wells Barnett and the Alpha Suffrage Club did in 1913. As probably the largest mobilization of women in American history, suffrage involved what you describe as “an endless chain of activity.” Since political activism has been a key tool in the battle of African American women against both racism and sexism, why do you think it is sidelined in the great battles for rights in this country?

SW: It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the suffrage story is overlooked or marginalized precisely because it is about women. Of course, historians like you and me have been fighting to win recognition for women’s experiences and perspectives in the larger telling of American history for decades, and this is a good example of how much more we need to do. I hope that the upcoming centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment will provide a chance to do some national consciousness-raising about why this movement was important and why it still matters.

I also think there has been a tendency in the past to dismiss the women’s suffrage movement because it was about the vote, which was not seen as a terribly exciting or important political tool. I think it’s safe to say that recent events, including widespread attempts at voter suppression and gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and under-resourced polls in urban settings, have confirmed for many activists across the political spectrum the importance of the vote and the need to remain vigilant about voting rights. Suffragists were the voting rights activists of their day.

ESA: Issues of whiteness and racial prejudice have been constants in both the suffrage movement and the modern women’s movement beginning in the late 1960s and continuing in the present. Beyond supporting southern mores and ‘sensibilities’ in an attempt to bring more (white) women into the suffrage tent, generations of suffragists imagined only themselves, virtuous and respectable white women, as potential voters. They refused to consider that, as both Sojourner Truth and Mary Church Terrell clearly spelled out, “colored women” need suffrage more than white women. This singular focus on white womanhood was still evident when I came to feminist consciousness in graduate school by getting involved with the Berkshire Conference of Women in History in the late 1970s. We talked about race and the not very hidden exclusion of African American women, and we made stabs at being more inclusive, but it took at least another decade for any change to become evident. Where do you think we are today?

SW: Further along the path than the suffragists were, but there’s still a long way to go. And learning more about the history of women’s suffrage can provide important lessons. One of the most exciting take-aways for me in current suffrage scholarship is the burgeoning attention to the roles that African American women played in the movement, despite the attempts of the white leadership to exclude or marginalize them. Putting African American suffragists at the center of the story demonstrates the benefits of an intersectional vision that links gender, race, and class in ways that were often lacking among white women who argued for the vote solely on the basis of gender. This intersectional vision, which we also see in working-class activists like Rose Schneiderman, is much closer to how contemporary feminists and activists approach strategizing for social change. As the conflicts among feminists after the recent Women’s Marches demonstrate, building coalitions that reflect the diversity among women is hard work but necessary to encompass the variety of perspectives women bring to political activism.

ESA: The pink pussy hats in January 2017 were an unusual (but too fleeting) moment of feminists and women of all ‘stripes’ coming together, of demonstrable unity in response to the shock and outrage after the presidential election. Was this how it was in the decades prior to 1920? Did women come together in a series of suffrage-themed activities: pageants, marches and parades, handing out ‘Votes for Women’ fliers to working class women in multiple languages, creating pointedly political cartoons (which reinforced prevailing notions of class and race prejudice), wearing campaign buttons and tin pins, all in the cause of Votes for Women …and then dispersing?

SW: I do think there is a direct line from the suffrage spectacles of the 1910s to the Women’s Marches of 2017 and beyond, right down to their distinctive colors and seizure of symbolic public space. And the wave of female candidates in the 2018 election as well as the unprecedented number of women candidates running for president directly build on the demands for fair and equitable access to the political realm that were central to the struggle to win the vote. It is true that much of the energy of the suffrage movement “dispersed” but really all that means that women activists continued to mobilize around a wide range of issues rather than all coming together under a single banner like suffrage. So probably better to think of women’s political mobilization as a continuum or an ongoing struggle, with no clear end in sight, and the women’s suffrage movement as an important part of that larger story.

ESA: It is striking how many suffragists lived openly alternative lives — far more than their numbers would warrant as a percentage of the population, I would imagine. The movement was obviously a space for women to be non-conformist in their ideas and in their personal lives, including sexual expression. The great crusade honed women’s political skills along with their friendships, and you describe a camaraderie among these women which is usually found in writing by men of wartime experiences. A real reversal here. In your chapter on Molly Dewson and Polly Porter (delightfully referred to as the Porter-Dewsons) you use the current phrase “queering of the suffrage movement.” I found this jarring in the context of the period. Can you tell us why you decided to go modern at this point and say more about those who were once referred to as Blue Stocking women?

SW: I deliberately chose to use that phrase to draw attention to the range of living arrangements I documented among suffragists that were outside of the bounds of heteronormative behavior. I think there is a great book or article to be written about the topic of “queering the suffrage movement”. Perhaps my book will spur someone to do it. When I first wrote about the “farmer-suffragettes” in my biography of Molly Dewson in 1987, there was no such thing as queer studies. It was interesting to revisit that part of their lives through that theoretical framework, and I found it useful for engaging the lives of other suffragists as well. My hunch is that the deeper we dig, the more non-normative behavior we are likely to find, which in turn makes suffragists far more interesting than their dour public reputation might initially suggest.

ESA: Last but not least you get to Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party in Chapter 19. Why does she bring up the rear? What was the decision- making in this instance? Yes, ratification with Tennessee’s “perfect 36” in 1920, but something else came into play, I would guess?

SW: Are you referring perhaps to an article I wrote in 2012 called “The Book I Couldn’t Write: Alice Paul and the Challenge of Feminist Biography”? No, I wasn’t vindictively trying to relegate Alice Paul to a minor role. It was really more a matter of chronology — she doesn’t really come on the scene until 1913. But she plays cameo roles in many of the stories, especially in Part Three, so it seemed fitting that she should get a shout-out in Sue Shelton White’s story of the final push for ratification in Tennessee. And I really did think it was a nifty detail that she could sew — specifically, that she personally sewed the stars of suffrage states onto a flag. I wonder how many young activists from the Women’s March know how to thread a needle?

ESA: You use the phrase “the things they carried” to great effect. Many of us are familiar with the phrase as the title of the book about young soldiers in the Vietnam War. My sense is you are using this concept to point to the artifacts you uncovered in an attempt to recreate and contextualize women’s suffrage experience. You use material culture both to reconstruct the meaning of the long history of women’s suffrage agitation and to suggest how people thought — what they “carried” in their heads. Am I on a tangent here?

SW: What they carried in their heads, but also what they held in their actual hands: a cookbook, a suffrage bluebird, a carte de visite, a prison pin. While doing research at the Schlesinger Library where the vast majority of my artifacts are located, I had the opportunity to literally hold these objects in my hands. I don’t want to sound mystical, but there is an undeniable way in which holding an object from an earlier moment in time makes you think back to who else has held it, what it might have meant to them, what its journey was to end up at a repository like the Schlesinger Library. Like biography, it is a way of personalizing the story, bringing it down to the individual level, rather than just the grand meta-narrative from Seneca Falls to 1920.

Working with these objects and thinking about the stories behind them definitely captured my imagination in ways I would not have suspected. Case in point: Carrie Chapman Catt’s set of twelve tree plaques to commemorate suffrage pioneers which opens the book. I critique her choices as too white, too native-born, and too based on the East Coast but I loved the idea of taking a walk in the woods being like taking a course in suffrage history. So I decided to create my own “Why They Marched Suffrage Forest” on our farm in New Hampshire, where in July we will dedicate nineteen bronze plaques (one for each of my chapters) which I commissioned from a family-owned business on Long Island. Carrie Chapman Catt’s tree plaques ended up at the Schlesinger Library. I hope mine will still be on our trees long after I am gone.

Susan Ware is an independent scholar who specializes in twentieth century U.S. history, women’s history, and biography. Ware has published widely in the field of 20th century American women’s history. Her books include Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal (1981); Holding Their Own: American Women in the 1930s(1982); and, most recently, American Women’s History: A Very Short Introduction (2015). She has written biographies of New Deal politician Molly Dewson, aviator Amelia Earhart, radio pioneer Mary Margaret McBride, and tennis great Billie Jean King, as well as a collective biography, Letter to the World: Seven Women Who Shaped the American Century (1998). Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought For the Right to Vote is available on Amazon here.

Elaine S. Abelson is an Associate Professor at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College. Professor Abelson’s intellectual interests and professional activities are wide ranging and cross a number of academic disciplines, including women’s and gender history, American cultural and social history, and the history of cities. Her first book, When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Stor , is a study of late nineteenth century consumer culture, respectable thieves (aka ‘Kleptomaniacs’), and the medical establishment.

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