Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists

Woefully uneducated about the tremendous struggle that went into gaining the vote for women in the United States, I picked this terrific primer off the shelf and devoured it. While it’s difficult to narrow the field down to five, I agree with the choice of Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, and Alice Paul.
Lucy Stone (1818-1893) worked and saved for nine years in order to attend Oberlin college, one of the few educational institutions open to women. She actively spoke out for women’s rights and abolition of slavery during a time when it was not acceptable for ladies to talk in public. She splintered from Anthony/Stanton’s suffrage party and created the American Women Suffrage Association along with its paper, Woman’s Journal. Stone is also the first publicly recorded woman to not take her husband’s last name, and their unique wedding vows reject the iniquity of marriage and make no mention of “obey”.
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), now replaced by Sacagawea on the $1 coin, morphed from abolitionist activism to a laser focus on obtaining the right for women to vote. She was arrested and jailed for voting in the 1872 election for Ulysses Grant. The Nineteenth Amendment is known as the Susan B. Anthony amendment, although she called it the sixteenth amendment, not realizing that the government would prioritize income tax, prohibition, and direct election of Senators over women’s rights.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was considered the movement’s Jefferson to Anthony’s Napoleon. Saddled with seven children, Cady Stanton wasn’t free to roam the lecture circuit like her compatriots, so she fired off her words via pen. She was a powerful writer, coining several of the catchphrases the cause would use: “male-marriage”, “satellites of the dinner pot and cradle”, ” aristocracy of sex.” She moved to Seneca Falls to help her husband’s health, and there invited Lucretia Mott and a handful of other women to have the famed 1848 conference believed to be the first women’s rights convention. Not satisfied for pushing for just the vote, she also wanted divorce reform and women’s rights over their bodies. In later life she penned The Woman’s Bible, which explores the sexist mindset of Genesis via commentary, and her own autobiography, Eighty Years and More.
I found the description of Frances Willard (1839-1898) fascinating. The media portrait of her has always been a very negative busybody intent on outlawing alcohol. Instead, she was incredibly savvy in using the temperance movement and the “Trojan horse of domesticity” to push for the vote and gain acceptance for the idea from more conservative voters. As always, the real story is more complex than the watered down tidbits we’ve been force-fed.
Which is a nice segue to Alice Paul (1885-1977) who was force-fed in jail during hunger strikes in both England and the US. We just celebrated the centennial anniversary of the 1913 march on Washington scheduled for a day prior to Wilson’s inaugural parade. Unprotected by police, the drunken onlookers got violent and things descended into the usual chaos. After Wilson’s re-election, she organized pickets outside the White House, which were the first ever protests of their kind in DC. After a very scary year (1917) which included the Night of Terror when the arrested protestors were beat, kick, dragged and choked by their jailers, the amendment was finally passed in 1919.
I’m haunted by the overall thought that Joan Hoff argues, “women’s suffrage was so long delayed that an unequal class got the right to vote when the ballot was no longer the key to equality. During the nineteenth century politics was in the air everywhere. Male participants established themselves as virtuous, civic-minded residents of the new republic by casting a ballot. But by the twentieth century, party politics was less important. Moreover, such a retarded pace meant that supposed progress, such as obtaining the vote or access to birth control, rarely corresponded to the contemporary needs of women.”