Wilton book talk: Suffrage vote was anything but ladylike
WILTON — The journey was long and never easy. It was fraught with controversy and filled with colorful characters — some almost beyond belief. It was a nail-biter down to the bitter end.
That is the story of the final passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as told by journalist Elaine Weiss in her book, “The Woman’s Hour — The Great Fight to Win the Vote.” Tennessee in 1920 would spell success or failure for the amendment’s passage and the struggle to sway the legislature one way or the other is the focus of Weiss’s book. It’s also the jumping off point for her to fill in the history of the 70 years between the 1848 Seneca Falls convention that kicked off the suffrage movement to that summer in Tennessee.
Weiss will talk about that period in history and more when she joins the Wilton Historical Society’s Booked for Lunch Club on Thursday, April 30, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m., via Zoom. All are welcome to participate in the event that is co-sponsored by the Wilton League of Women Voters.
Registration is required and may be done by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Those who register will receive a confirmation and Zoom session ID code.
“I am not a suffrage scholar or a professional historian,” Weiss told Hearst Connecticut Media. “I am a journalist turned popular historian. My goal was to write a popular book that told a narrative in a non-fiction way.”
Weiss is a self-described “politically active American woman” who votes in every election. She even dedicated the book to her parents, recalling how they took her into the voting booth with them when she was a child. Still, she was shocked at how little she knew about how American women obtained the vote. Her friends, all well-educated, were equally at a loss for much more than Seneca Falls and ultimate ratification.
She blames the many textbooks that generally devote only a few lines to the suffrage movement.
“There has been excellent scholarship on this, but clearly it had not been taught or filtered down to the general public,” she said. “My goal was to write a book people would enjoy reading and tell the story in a vivid way.”
She focused on the dramatic events in Tennessee, the last state needed to ratify the amendment. Had Tennessee gone the other way, it would have put the number of states opposed to women’s suffrage over the top.
“By telling that very dramatic story as a front story, and because this was the last stand — all the players were there — I could widen the lens and tell the rest of the story through the characters and flashback.
She also employed the use of suspense — more often the province of thriller and mystery writers — to add to the edginess of the story.
“One of the things I enjoy the most is when readers say that although they know how it turns out, but they got really nervous. … I had to make you forget that you knew what really happened.”
Weiss benefited from the rich material she was able to source, particularly from the Tennessee state archives that had preserved all the materials from the fight. The Library of Congress has the papers of both the National American Woman Suffrage Association — headed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — and the National Woman’s Party of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns.
“I could see the memos from the field organizers, they had letters, there was marginalia. It was very rich,” she said.
Weiss got her dialogue from the women’s notes and even their doodles. She also spoke with descendants of some of the women for color and a sense of their character. National newspaper accounts of the events “had great quotations from the women that were not in the primary sources.”
“None of it is made up. None of it is my putting words in their mouths,” she said.
“I want readers to understand these political operatives as real women with fears, vanities and motivations — to understand them in a three-dimensional way. People think Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton did it all.”
When Weiss speaks about her book, she also discusses democracy and voting rights, subjects about which she is passionate.
“We often portray our self-image of a nation as a beacon of democracy and leader of democratic ideals. We’ve never been in the forefront,” she said. “We were the 27th nation to give women the vote.” Most of those nations have had a women chief executive. “The rest of the world says ‘what is your problem?’”
When it comes to voter participation and voter suppression, Weiss said the arguments of the anti-suffragists still resonate with some today.
“The suffrage movement was not just a political goal but was a debate over the rights and role of women in society,” Weiss said. “It was much broader — are they equal under the law and in society — that’s the context that makes it more complex.”
The anti-suffrage arguments included that women did not want to vote, they were not emotionally stable enough, or intelligent enough, that it would bring about the destruction of the American family, that women would look outside the family for fulfillment. “We are still arguing this today,” she said.
“There are 25 states that have imposed restrictions or made it more difficult to vote.” She speaks in many of those states “and I just don’t think I should let it go.”
One misconception about the 19th Amendment she wants to correct is the mistaken belief it did not give women of color the right to vote. What prevented their voting were the Jim Crow laws passed in many southern states and Congress’ failure to enforce the amendment.
Women in politics
When Weiss speaks to an audience, she talks about how some women in Congress wore white at the State of the Union address in honor of the suffragists. When Geraldine Ferraro accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president in 1984 and Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, both wore white, the color of the suffragists.
Weiss wrote her book before that election, thinking it would be published during the first term of the first woman president. “It would be the crowning glory of the book,” she said.
That, of course, did not work out, “but in some ways, the themes of the book are in higher relief because of her loss,” Weiss said.
On Election Day 2016, Weiss recalled tens of thousands of people going to the graves of the suffragists and placing their “I voted” stickers there.
Hillary Clinton is a fan of the book and is executive producer of a television adaptation being produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin’ Entertainment. No release date has been set.
The Booked for Lunch Club was originally supposed to meet in June, but with the stay-at-home orders, the historical society and League of Women Voters decided to move it up to April and have a Zoom discussion. “The Woman’s Hour” was chosen to complement the previous suffrage-related programming that had taken place earlier this year including a lecture by Dr. Kelly Marino and the screening of the documentary “The Hello Girls” at Wilton Library.
Historical Society co-director Kim Mellin said they invited Weiss to participate and were “thrilled” when she accepted the invitation.
Weiss said she’s enjoyed doing virtual events like this where she will talk informally about the book and take questions from those joining in.