Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote by Ellen Carol DuBois; Simon & Schuster, 383 pp., $28
We Americans love the myths about our nation’s past. We pretend to be a land of unlimited opportunity, despite a painful legacy of discrimination based on the unholy trinity of race, class, and gender. We celebrate abstract notions of natural rights, human liberty, and social equality, even though Americans have routinely embraced deeply inegalitarian ideas of white supremacy, class pedigree, and maternity as women’s destiny.
Take California. In 1850, the new Free Soil state prohibited slavery yet protected peonage (servitude) of Native Americans. After passage of the 15th Amendment, southern states used grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and poll taxes to deny black males and poor whites the right to vote. In the presidential election of 1924, despite the passage of the 19th Amendment, only 20 percent of the eligible electorate in states with poll taxes voted.
Ellen Carol DuBois, an emeritus professor at UCLA, is not interested in the ugly morass of suffrage history. She has spent her entire career writing about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and women’s suffrage, and she readily admits that she sees the past primarily through Stanton’s eyes. In Woman Suffrage and Women’s Rights (1998), she wrote, “A reasonable critique of my work is that often, when writing of ‘suffragism’ or ‘women’s rights,’ I am really referring to Stanton and the women who shared her ideas.” Even so, her new book says precious little about the intellectual milieu that fed early women’s rights activity. She opens the book by resuscitating the now-debunked origin myth that Stanton was the leading intellectual force behind the entire movement who in 1848—by mere happenstance, we’re meant to believe—called a convention in her hometown of Seneca Falls, New York. DuBois ignores the fact that Stanton met with Lucretia Mott, Paulina Wright Davis, and others a year earlier in Boston, and there discussed the idea of a convention. Of further concern, DuBois elevates the Declaration of Sentiments drafted for the Seneca Falls meeting into a timeless, sacred relic, reprinting it in the book’s appendix, yet chooses not to analyze the rich array of arguments that animated women’s rights as part of antebellum political culture.
So why, in fact, did Stanton call for women’s suffrage in 1848? States were revising their constitutions; New York did so in 1846. Even earlier, at Virginia’s state constitutional convention in 1830–31, women’s suffrage was debated, though rejected. In 1841, Rhode Islanders staged a suffrage uprising, the “Dorr War,” when disenfranchised white men demanded a new constitutional convention without legislative approval.
This was Stanton’s world. She was influenced by New York judge Elisha Hurlbut, who in 1845 came up with a brilliant tactical strategy to enfranchise women. Building on the experience of New Jersey, the one state that from 1776 to 1807 had allowed unmarried, propertied women to vote, and buoyed by the success of the Gradual Emancipation Act (1799) that ended slavery in New York, Hurlbut proposed a three-step process: first, enfranchise single women who paid taxes; next, all single women; and finally, all women. Gerrit Smith, Stanton’s favorite cousin, also shaped her views when he advocated women’s suffrage in the platform of the Liberty League (a radical offshoot of the Liberty Party). In 1847, the Liberty League included two women as possible nominees for their presidential candidate: the celebrated Quaker minister Lucretia Mott (star attraction at Seneca Falls) and the popular writer Lydia Maria Child. Not just Seneca Falls but all the women’s rights conventions held in Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York matter as a template for understanding voting rights and popular constitutionalism.
There is another reason why DuBois is less interested in delving into Stanton’s ideas. In the 1860s and 1870s, Stanton opposed the 15th Amendment, once it was drafted to exclude women while protecting the right of black men to vote. So to quote Stanton in full would only tarnish her image as an advocate of human rights. DuBois acknowledges Stanton’s racism and elitism without explaining how her arguments against “manhood suffrage” conformed to the abject bigotry pervading partisan politics. In 1868, Stanton wrote, “If woman finds it hard to bear the oppressive laws of a few Saxon Fathers, of the best orders of manhood, what may she not be called to endure when all the lower orders, natives and foreigners, Dutch, Irish, Chinese and African, legislate for her and her daughters?” Making a case for literacy laws and voicing ethnic, racial, and class contempt, Stanton knew that democracies pitted one class against another.
The women’s suffrage movement never overcame these antagonisms. As the attractive woman featured on the book’s cover would suggest, the movement’s core constituency was educated upper- and middle-class white women. DuBois also ignores how suffragists (despite Susan B. Anthony’s opposition) disavowed Stanton’s heterodox Woman’s Bible (1895), which antisuffragists used to paint the movement as a den of atheists and homewreckers.
The last phase of the suffrage campaign is compellingly laid out in DuBois’s synthesis. Carrie Chapman Catt’s National American Woman Suffrage Association and Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party got suffrage across the finish line. Both organizations used all the resources they could muster to win over politicians, cajole wealthy donors, and finally persuade President Woodrow Wilson.
Paul emulated the radical tactics of British suffragists by staging protests outside the White House, which led to arrests, imprisonment, and hunger strikes. Catt and her associates built a “suffrage machine” and carefully cultivated political allies in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures. Wisconsin was the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment, and Tennessee the needed 36th state. Still, DuBois ignores the refusal of southern holdout states (deeply afraid of black women’s voting, wary of federal interference) to ratify for decades: Maryland held out to 1941, Virginia to 1952, Alabama to 1953, and Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina did not ratify until 1969–1971.
Women’s suffrage reveals the best and worst of American democracy. Its organizers ingeniously deployed old and new forms of democratic expression—conventions, petitions, treatises, oratory, parades, vigils, and artwork. By the 1900s, they had created a network of educational programs and handbooks to foster an informed female public. They worked for constitutional reform that empowered conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans alike. Yet suffrage did not end women’s status as second-class citizens, which is why Paul supported the Equal Rights Amendment.
Anna Howard Shaw, one-time president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, perfectly captured the dubious doublespeak of democracy in 1914: “It is indeed fearful and humiliating to belong to a class of people men can forget when speaking of fundamental privileges, but it is even more unfortunate to belong to a class of people men can forget without knowing they are forgetting anything.”
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