As I read The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote, one of my first thoughts was: Why is this history so unfamiliar? When I posed this question to the book’s author, Elaine Weiss, she advised me not to be too hard on myself, because the story of how American women won the vote is rarely covered with any depth in history textbooks. Usually one paragraph, along the lines of “Women asked for the vote at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and were granted the franchise in 1920.” Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are often the only names mentioned. This isn’t to say that Anthony and Stanton were not important figures, but between Seneca Falls and ratification of the 19th Amendment lay 72 years of persistent struggle, organizing, agitation, and lobbying by a host of women.
The Woman’s Hour is a relevant and riveting work of American history. The book reads like a novel and is full of larger-than-life characters locked in political and moral combat in the sticky Nashville summer of 1920. The American Bar Association awarded the The Woman’s Hour its 2019 Silver Gavel Award.
Weiss, author of the book Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army in the Great War, and numerous articles for Harper’s, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe, will appear on Sunday, November 3, at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Every legal, political, religious, and social machination was deployed against the suffrage movement. Allowing women to vote was considered too radical and dangerous. It was considered so radical that even some women at Seneca Falls in 1848 were opposed to including suffrage as one of their resolutions of human rights because they believed it would make them look ridiculous. It was left to Frederick Douglass to convince those women to keep suffrage as part of their platform. But even in 1920, anti-suffragists claimed it was too radical and accused the suffragists of being out of step with the times, even Bolshevik.
Two principal figures carry the narrative, Carrie Chapman Catt and Sue Shelton White. As you were writing the book, did you find yourself identifying with one of these figures more than the other? Yes and no. I found both fascinating. Both are deep characters who represent important aspects of the suffrage movement. Carrie Chapman Catt is the protégé of Susan B. Anthony, heir to the mantle of leadership of the movement. She’s a veteran of the struggle, a great strategist, orator, and diplomat. She comes to Nashville reluctantly, but she also knows that her legacy is at risk. Catt is the master of the inside game. She’s no less radical than her more outspoken, take-it-to-the-streets peers like Alice Paul and Sue Shelton White. The dynamic is similar to what we see today when young, fiery, progressive congresswomen challenge Nancy Pelosi. I don’t think the movement would have succeeded without the slow, nuanced achievements of Carrie Catt and her group. I think Carrie Catt’s contribution gets overlooked. She devoted every ounce of energy to the movement.
Can you talk about the tension that existed between the abolitionists and the suffragists? The movement for basic human rights for women grew out of the movement to abolish slavery. They were sibling movements. By the end of the Civil War, many women believed that their time had come. It’s important to remember that in the mid-19th century, women couldn’t own property, have their own savings, serve on a jury, testify in court, or file a civil lawsuit. The abolition and women’s rights movements sought to secure basic human rights, but when the Civil War ended, and women were not included in the 14th and 15th amendments, many felt betrayed by their abolitionist allies. Some in the movement refused to work for ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments.
The title of the book is taken from Frederick Douglass, who said that the woman’s hour has not come. What Douglass meant was that for black men, these rights were a matter of life and death. But it was also thought that giving blacks and women the franchise at the same time was more than the nation could handle. Unfortunately, race would remain a bedeviling aspect of the suffrage movement for decades.
Many women, particularly in the South, opposed ratification of the 19th Amendment because they believed that women would be defiled and sullied by political participation. The anti-suffragists saw the vote as an assault on the family and the moral downfall of the nation. They claimed women would abandon their families and that divorce would become rampant. Newspaper articles and broadsides of the time depicted men caring for screaming babies as if it spelled the end of civilization. Anti-suffragists believed women occupied a higher spiritual and moral plane and that just stepping inside a voting booth would harm them forever. Examine arguments against the Equal Rights Amendment and you find similar sentiments.
American women have had the right to vote for nearly 100 years, and in 2016, a woman won the popular vote in the presidential election. How do you think Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Sue Shelton White would feel today? I think they would be perplexed and unhappy that we still wonder if the nation is ready for a female president. I found an article in a major New York newspaper in September 1920 — right after ratification of the 19th Amendment — that made a serious argument that some of the leaders of the suffrage movement had the proven political skills and abilities to run for the White House in 1924! Many other countries have had female heads of state. We like to think we are advanced and progressive, but the United States lagged behind other countries in allowing women to vote. I think the suffragists would be impatient.
4•1•1 | Elaine Weiss will appear on Sunday, November 3, 3 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall, as part of the Arts & Lectures History Matters series. Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.edu.com