'The Woman's Hour' By Elaine Weiss Details How The Women's Suffrage Movement Laid The Groundwork For Modern Politics & Protests
For journalist Elaine Weiss, protest is patriotic — and although her latest book, The Woman’s Hour, out now from Penguin Random House, wasn’t written as a protest anthem, it can certainly be read as such now. Weiss submitted her manuscript for The Woman’s Hour — a nonfiction political thriller that gives readers a nearly hour-by-hour account of the last six weeks of the fight to ratify the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution — on the day before the 2016 election, in anticipation that it would be a celebratory story of everything American women went through to win first the vote, and finally that ultimate seat in the White House. But things (as you hardly need me to remind you) went in a decidedly different direction.
The Woman’s Hour stands apart from other texts on the suffrage movement in America, largely because the key figures we all recognize from our grade school textbooks — Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, etc. — are not front-and-center. What Weiss zeroes in on, in The Woman’s Hour, is the final campaign of the suffrage movement, waged in Nashville in August of 1920, and designed to compel Tennessee to become the last state needed to make women’s voting rights federal law. The women and men who feature prominently in The Woman’s Hour might not be those you’ve heard of before: Carrie Chapman Catt, Sue Shelton White, Anne Dallas Dudley, Tennessee Governor Albert Roberts; but each were critical in that final move to pass the 19th Amendment.
The Woman’s Hour also looks at the men, and the surprising number of women, who fought just as fiercely against women’s suffrage — those with cultural and/or racial motivations, often from the South, who saw the fight against the 19th Amendment as an extension of the battles fought in the Civil War; who saw suffrage as a threat to Christianity; and who believed that a woman’s right to vote would enable “the moral collapse of the nation.”
“This is a book about challenging — resisting — regressive government politics,” says Weiss, of her goals for The Woman’s Hour now that a woman is not seated at the desk in the Oval Office, as expected. “It’s about grassroots activists working for change, fighting inequality, facing down powerful forces — political, corporate, and religious opposition — to women obtaining their equal civil rights. It’s about social justice warriors winning their own freedom. And for those who feel satisfied and gratified by the result of the Presidential election — and this includes a majority of white women voters who voted for the victor — The Woman’s Hour is the story of how they won the ballot, too, how they won the power to decide.”
Here are eight things you’ll learn about the last days of the fight for (and against) women’s suffrage from Elaine Weiss’s The Woman’s Hour.
1It all came down to Tennessee.
Weiss’s book is centered around the six-week (and, simultaneously, decades-long) battle to convince Tennessee legislature to ratify the 19th Amendment. Three-quarters of the then-48 states (36 in total) would have to ratify the amendment for it to become federal law. By the summer of 1920, 35 states had ratified the 19th Amendment, eight had rejected it, and three refused to consider it at all. That left North Carolina (a solid “no” vote) and Tennessee — the suffragists’ last hope.
2Over twenty countries granted women the right to vote before the United States.
This number even includes countries the United States had just finished fighting in World War I — a war that claimed to be about “making the world safe for democracy.” The United States fell behind Austria, Germany, Poland, and Russia, as well as New Zealand, Finland, and others in enfranchising women. (It’s also worth noting that voting rights in the United States and around the world are still far from universally equal. As we saw in 2016, gerrymandering is alive and well in the United States. Globally, Saudi Arabia only granted women the right to vote as late as 2011.)
As Weiss notes in her book, Carrie Chapman Catt — the then-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the International Woman Suffrage Alliance — found it humiliating to preside over an international organization dedicated to women’s voting rights while being from a country where half the citizens were still barred from participating in democracy.
3Racism played just as strong a role against suffrage as sexism.
The post-Civil War implementation of Jim Crow law in the south largely prevented black men and women from voting — despite the 14th and 15th amendments written to guarantee (black men) those rights. One of the key arguments against women’s suffrage, in the south, was that if a federal amendment to the Constitution mandated the right to vote for ALL women, that would include black women too, making it nearly impossible for the Jim Crow laws that prevented black men from voting to be upheld.
Racism, as it is well documented, was also a battle fought within the women’s suffrage as well — and the overt and/or subtle racism of otherwise progressive members of the movement is not something Weiss shies away from in her book.
4Much of the opposition to women’s suffrage came from women themselves.
They were known, colloquially, as the “Antis” — the women who vigorously opposed their own right to vote. One, at the center of The Woman’s Hour, was Josephine Anderson Pearson — a college professor and administrator who served as the president of the Tennessee Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage and saw her fight against the 19th Amendment as an extension of the Civil War. Pearson viewed suffrage as a threat to both Christianity and the American family unit, as well as the end of the Southern way of life.
Amazingly, Edith Wilson, who effectively ran the White House when her husband, then-President Woodrow Wilson, became too ill to do so, was also opposed to women’s voting rights.
5The 19th Amendment was as much about social change as it was political.
Another of the anti-suffragists’ central arguments was that allowing women the right to vote would “disturb the home and endanger the family” or otherwise compromise the “morals” that were central to American life. The 19th Amendment not only transformed American politics and the electoral process, it also changed the national dynamics between men and women, the ways women were allowed to participate in society and culture as well as politics, the way society viewed women, and — perhaps most importantly — the way women saw themselves.
6The women who started the women’s suffrage movement did not live to see the 19th Amendment ratified.
If you think Congress is a slow-moving (or barely-moving) bureaucratic cog now, just consider this: both the United States House and Senate delayed voting on the 19th Amendment for 40 YEARS. It wasn’t until June of 1919 that the amendment was finally pushed through both houses and sent on to the individual states for ratification. So while that first call for suffrage came from Seneca Falls in 1848 (over 70 years earlier), almost all the women and men involved in the early days of the movement — Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass, and others — didn’t live to see women earn the right to vote. The names of the women who picked up the banner in their wake, those at the center of The Woman’s Hour, are less known to history, but no less important: Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, Sue Shelton White, Anne Dallas Dudley, Juno Frankie Pierce, and others — most women who weren’t even born when that first meeting in Seneca Falls took place.
7The social and political climate of the United States in 1920 mirrored much of what we’re experiencing today.
In the aftermath of both the Civil War and World War I, the United States was deeply enmeshed in social and cultural divides, as well as a debilitating post-war economic depression. Tens of thousands of workers — from coal miners to the garment industry — were on strike for workers’ rights. National Prohibition had increased the culture of violence in the country. Race riots were taking place in cities all over the United States. Corporate interests were taking over politics. The 1920 Republican presidential nominee Warren Harding fueled the divides by calling for a “return to normalcy” and an “America First” agenda (sound familiar?). The time was, in a word, less-than-ideal for women to rise up and demand their rights, once and for all. And, yet… she persisted.
8The suffrage movement paved the way for future civil rights movements in American history — and the protests we’re still waging today.
As Weiss notes, the fight for the 19th Amendment “secured the enfranchisement of one-half of the nation’s citizens — 27 million women — with not one shot fired.” (This is honestly why women should just be in charge of everything.) The Woman’s Hour also details how the women’s suffrage movement — from the lobbying tactics and strategies, to the public education efforts, to the overall commitment to nonviolent protest and civil disobedience — has resonated through subsequent movements for national progress: the Civil Rights Movement, the fight for gay rights and marriage equality, the battles for women’s reproductive rights, and the Black Lives Matter and Women’s March movements today, and more.