Votes for Women!: American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot
In this expansive yet personal volume, author Winifred Conkling covers not only the suffragists’ achievements and politics but also the private journeys that fueled their passion and led them to become women’s champions. From Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who founded the suffrage movement at the 1848 Seneca Falls convention; to Victoria Woodhull, the first female candidate for president; to Sojourner Truth and her famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?”; to Alice Paul, who was arrested and force-fed in prison, Conkling combines thorough research with page-turning storytelling to bring the battle for the right to vote to vivid life. Votes for Women! also explores the movement’s often powerful, sometimes difficult relationship with the temperance and abolition movements, and takes unflinching look at some of the uglier moments in the fight for the women’s vote.
Votes for Women! is a mesmerizing read perfect for fans of propulsive narrative nonfiction stories like Most Dangerous and The Family Romanov.
To be up-front honest, let me just say that this was easily the most thorough work I’ve ever read on the Women’s Suffrage movement. Which, sadly, isn’t saying much—as my previous exposure amounted to a History Chanel special, a handful of viral Facebook articles, and a glowing two-page spread on Susan B. Anthony found somewhere in the middle of my high school U.S. History textbook. (Neither of my degrees involved women’s studies.) I requested this book specifically to fill in that unfortunate gap, and to a certain extent, it did a solid job of that.
The preface opens in 1920, with the scene of the defining battle over women’s voting rights. In the Tennessee House of Representatives, the decision over whether or not to support the 19th Amendment all came down to a 24-year-old first-term Republican named Harry T. Burn. He’d already voted with the antis to delay the decision, but there was a fateful letter in his pocket that changed his mind—and ultimately, the outcome for an entire nation. The contents of that letter were, in actuality, a century in the making.
And it’s with that air of anticipation the author pauses the scene, taking readers back to 1826—where 11-year-old Elizabeth Cady endures the death of her only surviving brother, while consoling her Judge/Lawyer father. To her father’s lament that she hadn’t been born a boy, she decides: “I will try to be all my brother was.” And here is our true chosen starting point.
We follow the progress of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s life as she grows into activism, is mentored by Lucretia Mott, and is joined in like-minded cause and friendship by Susan B. Anthony. The first half of the book focuses almost exclusively on Stanton and Anthony. Though other women of the movement are given a page or two of mention and even bios—their lives and works are not followed nearly so closely. And when the book transitions to the next generation of Suffragists, the focus turns to Alice Paul.
What I Learned:
#1. The Quakers took on significant roles with both women’s rights and the abolition movement.
I never realized how the Quakers thought and operated on these issues—being so proactive in the realms of social justice and human rights, while still technically operating as pacifists. (It seems they knew scripture far better than most of their protestant alternatives of the day.) Their women all but took for granted their positions of equality with the males of their somewhat insular subculture. This atmosphere allowed a number of these women to develop an innate ease with public speaking and open discourse, priming them for leadership roles in societal reform work while granting them a supportive domestic partnership. Lucretia Mott being a prime example:
"Mott believed that ‘independence of the husband and wife is equal, their dependence mutual, and their obligations reciprocal.’”
#2. Susan B. Anthony was SAVAGE.
"Well, if in order to please men they wish to live on air, let them. The sooner the present generation of women die out the better. We have jack-asses enough in the world now without such women propagating any more."
At first, I found her delightfully ornery. But the more I read, the more I also gleaned the sense she was also bitterly judgmental and lacking in empathy. Decidedly single her entire life, Anthony disapproved of women within the cause getting married or having children—as it took time and energy away from suffrage work. When suffragette Lucy Stone (who’d initially decided against marriage) eventually found an exceptional man who won her over, Anthony took her change of heart as a personal betrayal—one which she long held over the woman’s head. I’d never seen Susan B. Anthony depicted as anything but a heroine—an unparalleled juggernaut of the women's rights crusade. I didn't realize she also caused so much splintering and alienation within her own organization and their allies.
#3. The Women’s Suffrage Movement was split into two main conflicting branches.
*The National Women Suffrage Association. Headed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, this branch was more extreme in its views and approach; focused on Federal-level changes.
*The American Women Suffrage Association. Headed by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, this branch was more moderate; largely focused on state-level changes, with the goal of gradually turning the socio-political tide of the entire country.
#4. Women’s Suffrage and Black Suffrage were initially a more joint human rights cause.
In the book, it's admitted that the more radical wing of the Women’s Suffrage movement, headed by Anthony and Stanton, inadvertently set the women's rights efforts back by perhaps 20 years. In their desperation to achieve faster, more dramatic results, they made repeated and massive strategic errors. It began with them seeing the Black Suffrage cause as competitive with their aims. Some social reformers thought it wisest to fight one battle at a time, deciding to focus on first attaining voting rights for freed slaves. (Anthony and Stanton took an all-or-nothing stance, while more moderate suffragists felt they’d rather see someone attain rights rather than no one.) The Suffrage division widened as Anthony and Stanton began using racist and elitist language, conveying offense at the idea of illiterate black men being given the right to vote ahead of educated white women. They then went so far as to embrace a notorious racist, simply because he offered them financial support.
"Although Train was infamous for making hateful remarks about African Americans, ... some suffragists, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were so eager to rally support for their cause that they were willing to overlook his bigoted fearmongering and forge an alliance with him."
What Didn’t Work For Me:
A keen effort was made to liven the prose beyond the sterile confines of textbook information, which made for a well-paced and surprisingly engaging read. However, there was also a fine line being walked—one that should rightly call readers to caution. A trading of pure objectivity for adjective spice and the risk of misattributing emotion. As a result, the author's voice and opinions are sometimes unobtrusive and sometimes intrusive. For example: I didn't mind when she called the MAOFESW "awkwardly named;" and readers are provided at least some witness claims and diary-based justification for conveying the thoughts of Anthony or Stanton. But there are also occasions like the one in which we’re given the presumed knowledge of a random audience member's thoughts. To some, this may feel like nonfiction overstep—bordering on mind-reading.
My greatest regret over this book is that it seemed to disproportionately spotlight Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul. (Granted, they were also shown in a light that didn’t hide what would now be considered glaring white-supremacy related flaws.) As a result, women like Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Lucy Stone, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett felt more like minor historical footnotes within the women’s right’s movement.
Considering Lucretia Mott helped write the Declaration of Sentiments and had so much to do with Stanton’s growth and development into the Suffrage movement, it was strange to completely lose her thread of involvement at the point she was elected president of the American Equal Rights Association. I had to look up the end of her life’s story from other sources outside of this book, and there learned that Mott actually resigned from the AERA in 1868 when Stanton and Anthony allied themselves with George Francis Train. Clearly there was a great conflict of ideals there, to say nothing of the strain it must have caused in Mott’s relationship with Stanton. But unfortunately, this isn’t an aspect Votes For Women chooses to go into.
While primarily centered on only the more radical contributors to women’s suffrage, this book is an eye-opening chronological look at nearly a century of struggle. A valuable resource for anyone looking for a more palatable and honest explanation of motives and events leading up to and including the passage of the 19th Amendment.