Saturday, November 23, 2019

Book Nook: And Yet They Persisted - How American Women Won the Right to Vote

Most suffrage histories begin in 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton first publicly demanded the right to vote at the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. And they end in 1920, when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, removing sexual barriers to the vote. And Yet They Persisted traces agitation for the vote over two centuries, from the revolutionary era to the civil rights era, excavating one of the greatest struggles for social change in this country and restoring African American women and other women of color to its telling.
In this sweeping history, author Johanna Neuman demonstrates that American women defeated the male patriarchy only after they convinced men that it was in their interests to share political power. Reintegrating the long struggle for the women’s suffrage into the metanarrative of U.S. history, Dr. Neuman sheds new light on such questions as:
  • Why it took so long to achieve equal voting rights for women
  • How victories in state suffrage campaigns pressured Congress to act
  • Why African American women had to fight again for their rights in 1965
  • How the struggle by eight generations of female activists finally succeeded

I had a chance to interview him to learn more.

Why did you write this book?
I have been studying the topic of women’s suffrage for several years. My first book, Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote, looked at the nation’s first social celebrities – with names like Astor, Belmont and Vanderbilt. They were the media darlings of their day, covered for every change of fashion and décor. Like Oprah embracing a cause in our day, when these wives and daughters of great Gilded Age wealth leveraged their social cachet for political power, they brought great excitement and energy to the Votes for Women campaign. The editors at Wiley Blackwell read that book, and reached out to ask if I would be interested in writing a comprehensive history of the movement. I was thrilled, because I wanted to write a book that reintegrated the women’s movement into the larger metanarrative of American history – not a separate concern, but a part of the whole.
Most historians begin this story in 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton first stood up at Seneca Falls and asked for the vote for women, and they end it in 1920, when the 19th Amendment was passed. I told the editors at Wiley Blackwell that if they wanted a comprehensive study, I would begin during the colonies, when some women such as Abigail Adams agitated for the vote and others, particularly those who owned property in New Jersey, exercised the right to vote. And such a book, I wrote, would not end in 1920, but in 1965, when African American women in the South – technically enfranchised by the 19th Amendment but constrained from voting by Jim Crow laws requiring interpretive literacy tests and expensive poll taxes – went back into the streets to demand their rights. Wiley was delighted by my broadening of this history among eight generations of women over two centuries, and so, And Yet They Persisted: How American Women Won the Right to Vote, was born. I’m proud of the book, and excited to share it with readers.

Why is it so important for people to realize how long women had to fight for the right to vote?
Because social change comes slowly, across the generations. Listen to the frustration of Carrie Chapman Catt, a mainstream suffrage leader, as she looked back after the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. “To get the word male in effect out of the Constitution cost the women of the country 52 years of pauseless campaigning,” she wrote. “During that time they were forced to conduct fifty-six campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to urge Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to induce State constitutional conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to urge presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms; and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses. …Millions of dollars were raised, mainly in small sums, and expended with economic care. Hundreds of women gave the accumulated possibilities of an entire lifetime, thousands gave years of their lives, hundreds of thousands gave constant interest and such aid as they could. It was a continuous, seemingly endless, chain of activity. Young suffragists who helped forge the last links of that chain were not born when it began. Old suffragists who forged the first links were dead when it ended.”
Of course the journey took longer than 52 years, but the idea that a grassroots movement had to rise up, that reformers had to convince the greater public by defusing a once-radical idea, that the effort required a coordinated campaign of many people from many walks of life – these qualities, in my mind, are still the foundations of social change. So it’s instructive to see how leaders of this movement – one of the largest human rights campaigns in history – achieved their goal, to look at their missteps as well as their victories along the way.

Why do so many people not realize how long the struggle for women to vote took?
In the age of social media, when responses come at the speed of a tweet and technology offers immediate solutions, it is mind-blowing that women would have to fight for two centuries to procure this basic human right. And yet, in this history, we learn not just of the struggle of women – and their male allies – to win the fight. We learn also of the growth of the country, from rural to urban, from sheltered to worldly. To me, it is a gripping tale of human pursuit against the odds. It wasn’t always pretty – white suffrage leaders often distanced themselves from black suffragists, bowing to the culture’s racism. But in the end, we have come to see women as important to the political sphere, and racism as its scourge.

Why is it always assumed that the struggle for the right to vote for women ended in 1920?
I suppose because ending the story in 1920 was a way to wrap the package with a neat bow. And winning the 19th Amendment was a remarkable achievement. When it was crafted in 1787, the U.S. Constitution required that any change in the foundational document meet a strict threshold – a two-thirds vote by Congress and a three-fourths vote for ratification by the states. There is no question this is a high bar. According to congressional records, some 12,000 constitutional amendments have been introduced in the 232 years since. Most never leave the committees to which they are assigned. Of the 33 amendments that were passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification, 27 were approved – and one, the 18th Amendment enacting Prohibition – was also repealed. For the 19th Amendment, the process was a troubled journey, with more setbacks than victories, more heartbreak than celebration. So I think it’s important to celebrate the moment when Harry T. Burn, a 24-year-old legislator from McGinn County in Tennessee, switched his vote and voted for suffrage. He pulled from his jacket pocket a note from his mother Phoebe Febb, who wrote, “Hurrah and vote for suffrage!” His decision shocked the sizeable anti-suffrage crowd, which included many women and many from the liquor industry fearful that enfranchised women would enact Prohibition. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the deciding 36th state to ratify, and women all over the nation voted at the November elections.

How can women continue to make progress in terms of equal rights?
One thing I learned in my study of the women’s suffrage movement was that the states served as incubators for social change. By 1912, six states, all in the West, had granted women the right to vote in all local and federal elections – Wyoming (1890), Colorado (1893), Utah and Idaho (1896), Washington (1910) and California (1911). The campaign in California was hard-fought and very close – the referendum won by a margin of one vote per precinct – but the effect was dramatic, increasing to 1.3 million the number of female voters eligible to cast ballots in the 1912 presidential election. By the time Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916, analysts concluded he could not have been returned to office without the votes of women. No president has since. This drumroll of the states continued, like an insistent Greek chorus, until finally their cheers amended the U.S. Constitution.
By the time the House and the Senate passed the 19th Amendment in 1919, much of the country — 27 of 48 states and one territory (Alaska) — had already granted women the vote in some state or federal elections. In presidential elections, 339 of the 531 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency — well more than the 267 required — came from states that had removed the gender barrier to the voting booth. Great swaths of territory remained safely in the hands of the anti-suffrage establishment — from the Northeast population centers of New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the solid South of the Old Confederacy. But it was the electoral power of these women voting in the states that tipped the balance of power toward suffrage in Congress. No longer supplicants, petitioning Congress for the vote, they became constituents, with the power to defeat congressmen who voted against their interests.
Because of this history, I believe that any fight for social change, any movement for women’s rights or human rights, has to start at the grassroots. If you want to change the world, start in the neighborhood. When I studied the role of black women in winning the historic and landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, I was struck by how unassuming, how unfamous they were. Teachers and hairdressers, hospital workers and agricultural workers, they stood up at one moment in time to win the vote. They endured beatings, sexual assaults, job dismissals and humiliation at voter registrar’s offices. They rose up because they realized that, as Mississippi’s Fanny Lou Hamer put it, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free,” and because they realized that change had to start with them, in their communities.

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