Countdown to Suffrage

Photo by Nina SubinPhoto by Nina Subin
By Pat Harrison

In her recently published book, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote (Viking, 2018), the popular historian Elaine Weiss has written about the six weeks before the 19th amendment passed in Tennessee. The amendment had been pushed through Congress and needed 36 states legislatures to ratify it, which Tennessee did during the summer of 1920.

If the amendment was defeated in Tennessee, momentum would be lost, and the antisuffrage forces might gain strength. “The suffragists rightfully suspected that the nation was on a swing toward isolationism and reactionary policies,” Weiss said in an interview from her home in Baltimore. “They knew if they didn’t get the vote then, it would be delayed a very long time.”

In researching her book, Weiss relied on several collections of suffrage papers at the Schlesinger—including the Carrie Chapman Catt Papers, the Sue Shelton White Papers, and many others. One of the collections she found most helpful was the Betty Gram Swing Papers, a then recent gift to the library from Pam Swing, the granddaughter of the suffragist Betty Gram. Weiss was able to meet the granddaughter and to hear stories about her grandmother’s work as a national organizer. “Pam sorted out the papers that she thought would be useful to me and guided me through the unprocessed papers,” Weiss said. “That’s the goldmine of the Schlesinger, with new things coming in.”

Weiss said she was surprised by the sometimes-racist invective of the suffragists. “It’s clear that the abolition movement and suffrage were sibling movements,” she said, “but then there’s this terrible split after the Civil War, when women are told that universal suffrage is not going to happen, that the nation can only take one reform at a time, and women are told to wait.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony “descended into depths of vile racist rhetoric,” she writes in the book, “going so far as to warn against the ‘horrible outrages’ against white women that were sure to follow the black man’s enfranchisement and elevation in society.”

It’s a fight that she thinks can be instructive to today’s activists. “This is a book about grassroots activists,” Weiss said. “Suffragists for the most part were not high-born women. Susan Anthony was a schoolteacher. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was well read, but she was a house mother. She had seven kids.”

Weiss sees a parallel between the suffragists and the young people leading today’s fight for gun control. “They’re making demands that seem impossible to some people, but so were the suffragists. It was considered totally impossible, when women first demanded the vote.”

Search Year: 
2018