The co-authors of The Suffragist Playbook, a nonfiction guide for young readers, Lucinda Robb and Rebecca Boggs Roberts are both related to prominent women in politics. Robb is the granddaughter of First Lady Lady Bird Johnson and daughter of Lynda Robb, former chairwoman of the board of Reading Is Fundamental and the President's Advisory Committee for Women. Roberts is the granddaughter of Lindy Boggs—the first woman to preside over a Democratic National Convention and the first woman elected to Congress from Louisiana—and daughter of pioneering journalist Cokie Roberts. Robb was project director for Our Mothers Before Us: Women and Democracy, 1789–1920 at the Center for Legislative Archives. She also helped organize the National Archives’ celebration of the 75th anniversary of the 19th Amendment in 1995. Roberts is an author, journalist, and political consultant, as well as a program coordinator for Smithsonian Associates. We asked Robb and Roberts to interview each other about their new book, and lessons learned from the 19th- and 20th-century feminist movements.
Rebecca Boggs Roberts: We’ve known each other a long time, but this was our first book together—actually, our first anything together outside of social events. What was the experience like for you?
Lucinda Robb: Really fun, and somewhat serendipitous—my grandmother would have called that a 50-cent word. I think our styles complemented each other more than we could have predicted. I have lots of ideas and like to edit, which is a must because otherwise I write like I’m from the 19th century where they got paid by the word. Your writing style is just so witty, and insightful and fun—I’m totally jealous! And you have great instincts about what is interesting. I remember three years ago going to a reading for your book about the 1913 Women’s Parade and telling you my idea for a women’s suffrage comic. We wound up pitching it to Candlewick, but it fizzled because the artwork would take too long. Then the president of Candlewick read your book on a plane. She emailed and wanted to know if there was anything else we could do, so I suggested something on the lessons of the suffrage movement. And it just rolled out from there.
Also, I learned that I really, really love parentheticals. Our poor editors!
Roberts: When I look back now, we took a pretty big chance when we decided to collaborate on this book. We knew that we liked and respected each other and knew a lot about suffrage. And it was awfully convenient that your research had focused on the 19th century, while mine was exclusively about the 20th. But we had no idea how we would actually work together. We joke that I never met a first draft I didn’t like, while you would still be editing the book if you could, but it’s kind of true. I tend to work over stuff away from the page, while I’m walking the dog, or while I’m pretending to watch my son play baseball. By the time I sit down at the computer, it’s just typing—the whole thing is already written and edited in my head. Then I move on. You take some time, go back to things, reflect and then revisit ideas and phrases. You like to get feedback from everyone, whether they are your kids or professional historians. And in the end you make it better.
(Parenthetically, I love parentheticals too. And I echo your sympathy for our poor editors. They had their hands full with us. Fortunately, they are, to a woman, superheroes.)
Robb: You and I are the same age and went to college together, but before this book, I probably knew your mom, your grandmother, and even your Aunt Barbara better than I knew you. They’re a pretty formidable group! How did all the strong women in your family influence your writing?
Roberts: Well, for one thing, it never occurred to me to accept the men-only version of American history. When I was a kid reading about the Constitutional Convention or the Civil War or the Gilded Age, no female names would be mentioned at all. But I never drew the conclusion that women weren’t vital to those movements; rather, I assumed that some short-sighted historians just failed to mention them. It took me a while to realize how unusual, even radical, that assumption was. My grandmother used to say “you can accomplish anything you want if you don’t need to get the credit for it,” which strikes me as such a female perspective. Women’s ambition, influence, and accomplishments have always been part of the American story, but they didn’t take the same form as men’s actions. They couldn’t. So the things women did weren’t the kinds of things that got them marble and bronze monuments and written up in military histories. You must have seen this too, with your mother and grandmother, both of whom accomplished plenty, just not the same way their husbands did. I’m guessing they made sure you grew up learning a lot of “women’s history.” Having done a deeper dive into the suffrage movement, has anything surprised you?
Robb: Two things. First, I still can’t get over the fact that so many women, so late into the fight, were against votes for women! Not the majority of course, but a pretty sizable minority. When I worked at the Archives we unearthed thousands of forgotten petitions from women, and we would find all of these letters from anti-suffrage organizations with 30-plus Mrs. so-and-so’s on the letterhead, all presumably big shots in their communities. They would argue against women voting by saying—and I quote—“It would be an endorsement of nagging as a national policy!” Seriously! Oddly enough, many of them believed that women were morally superior and should influence public policy, but only as advisors.
The second surprise, on the flip side, is just how hard a lot of men worked for suffrage. And it wasn’t just this-is-how-the-wind-is-blowing support—there were many who were deeply committed. Frederick Douglass was a great ally from Seneca Falls to his dying day. And when they held the first successful vote in the House in 1918, where it passed by only one vote, three pro-suffrage congressmen were brought in on stretchers. One N.Y. representative arrived from the deathbed of his wife to vote for suffrage, and then turned right around to go home for her funeral. It makes me wonder what I would have done at the time, don’t you? I’m sure you would have supported the cause, but are you Team Paul (radical suffragists) or Team Catt (moderate suffragists)?
Roberts: I’d really like to think I’m Team Paul. The National Woman’s Party Activists were so brave and creative and righteous. And Woodrow Wilson was out there on the international stage, giving a speech a minute about how vital democracy was, while he continued to oppose federal suffrage for American women. I love that Alice Paul and the NWP wouldn’t let him get away with it. But if I look at the reality of my own political involvement, I have always been a work-within-the-system, color-within-the-lines kind of activist. I suspect that if I faced the social pressures that women did in 1917, I would have joined Carrie Chapman Catt and the NAWSA [National American Woman Suffrage Association] in their letter writing, petition drives, and lobbying efforts, rather than picketing the White House with the NWP. But I would have admired their bravery enormously. I still do.
Robb: You spent a lot of time going through the records of the National Women’s Party. Do you have a favorite find?
Roberts: The card file at the NWP is an absolutely amazing artifact. The NWP gets remembered as the source of attention-grabbing, aggressive, almost guerrilla tactics, but they also really did their homework and knew their stuff. Those cards include every vote that a Congressman cast on suffrage, anything he ever said about suffrage, whether his wife, mother, or daughters were active in the cause, any personal details that would be useful to suffrage lobbyists, like where he played golf or went to church, or whether he had a drinking problem. The cards had to be updated every time a member of Congress lost, retired, gave a speech, or changed his mind. It is an incredible research project. And sometimes also really funny. I’m not going to ask you about your favorite find—instead I’m going to tee you up to talk about your favorite forgotten suffragist. Because I know you’re dying to mention her....
Robb: Thank you for that! I should probably define “favorite.” If you had said most admirable, it would be Sojourner Truth. Nell Painter’s excellent biography showed me what a remarkably savvy and capable communicator she was, with a passion for justice. We need her now! But one of the most intriguing, to me, is Frances Willard. Admit it, Becca, you’d never heard of her before we started this project. Willard was the massively popular head of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union between 1879 and 1898, and in her day she was probably the best known woman in the world after Queen Victoria. Mention her name now and... crickets. But she pulled off an amazing marketing trick—she managed to make women’s voting respectable to a bunch of conservative, mostly evangelical, middle class housewives. She took suffrage mainstream. She did this not by arguing about equality, like [Susan B.] Anthony and [Elizabeth Cady] Stanton and so many others did, but by saying essentially, that women need the vote to look out for their children and families. She branded it “the home protection ballot,” which was wildly successful.
If Willard is remembered at all today it is because Ida B. Wells called her out—rightly!—for WCTU literature that demonized Blacks. Wells, who was fearless, successfully shamed Willard and got the WCTU to condemn lynching. But what gets overlooked is that Wells put a spotlight on Willard because she was so influential. People cared what she thought.
Roberts: You helped plan events for the 75th anniversary of the 19th Amendment; how is it different for the 100th?
Robb: It’s been really interesting. For the 75th anniversary it was clearly a celebration. There was a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue led by a woman on a white horse, with about 500 sisters from the Delta Sigma Theta sorority at Howard University marching—at the front this time. It ended at the steps of the National Archives with a special program which your mother, Cokie, narrated. Inside, the 19th Amendment was on display. Everything was very festive. The 100th anniversary has had a very different feel, and not only because of the pandemic. This time around there has been a much greater awareness of the fact that the 19th Amendment didn’t actually guarantee women the right to vote, especially not Black women in the south, or Native American or Puerto Rican women. There has been a lot more honesty about the racism in the suffrage movement, thanks to some great scholarship that started coming out in the late 1990s, so we know more about the role of Black women suffragists. It makes for a fuller, much richer picture of what happened. My own thinking has changed over time too. I now think of the 19th Amendment as more of a rung on the ladder of democracy rather than the final step.
Roberts: I think it’s a really positive development—not only are we including more voices in the American story, we are being honest about the flaws of those who were already there. We both went to Princeton, where they are rethinking the legacy of Woodrow Wilson. All around us, the lives and actions of historical figures are being revised, contextualized, and criticized. I believe the underrepresentation of women in the canon of American history is sexist, damaging, and bad history. To correct that lapse, it is tempting to overstate the suffragists’ virtues and minimize their faults. But that would be both wrong and boring. I don’t think it serves anyone to pretend these women were perfect. They made mistakes, were slow to learn, in some cases were overtly racist and wrong. In our book, we hold them up as examples to young activists, flaws and all. I have totally stolen a line from you here: you said you find their imperfections liberating. Their humanity means that all of us, with all our flaws and biases and mistakes, can also change the world.
Robb: It’s like that great Faulkner line, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” That has really turned out to be true! So much of the way we view the suffrage struggle has changed over the last 25 years, specifically regarding the racism in the movement. And as much as we’ve added to the story, I don’t think we are done yet. In another 25 years, I bet there will be insights that we haven’t even been talking about today.
Roberts: I have to ask the really important question here, Lucinda. Whenever we do Zoom calls these days, I see a bunch of Pez dispensers behind you. What’s up with that?
Robb: I have hundreds, but you can only see about half of them. I’ve been collecting Pez forever and several years ago I started hanging them in my small basement office. Who knew they would become my official background for Zoom! While most Pez dispensers are modeled after cartoon and comic characters, they do have some that are based on real people. In fact I have three Pez versions of Elvis—Army Elvis, Movie Star Elvis, and Vegas Elvis. There's even an entire collection of presidential Pez starting with George Washington and ending with Obama. But there is only one dispenser of a real American woman—a very rare Betsy Ross Pez from 1976. And if I’m being honest, she’s not the American woman I would have picked. So there is a Millard Fillmore Pez, and James Buchanan Pez, but no Susan B. Anthony Pez! I think it is a huge missed opportunity—they could do a special edition series with Anthony, Alice Paul, and Ida B. Wells and I bet it would be a bestseller. In fact, maybe I need to write the company....
The Suffragist Playbook: Your Guide to Changing the World by Lucinda Robb and Rebecca Boggs Roberts. Candlewick, $16.99 Oct. 27 ISBN 978-1-5362-1033-0