One hundred years after the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits the government from denying citizens the right to vote on the basis of their sex, historians, educators, and publishers are considering the complicated milestone, reflecting on a political revolution that is still underway.
Several observers acknowledge major gaps in public understanding, and in their own, about the fight for women’s voting rights. “The centennial gives us an excuse and an opportunity to go back and learn as much as we can,” says Angela P. Dodson, author of the 2017 suffrage history Remember the Ladies, which Center Street released in paperback in March. “It’s an opportunity to delve into the history of people who haven’t even been discovered yet and have cross-cultural conversations, too.”
Dodson is among those who, in the past few years, have focused on the untold stories of the suffrage movement, many of which center on women and men of color. “Even before the centennial year began, there have been tensions over who and what to celebrate—or even how to sum up the amendment’s significance,” Jennifer Schuessler wrote in an August article in the New York Times, which discussed three new Washington, D.C., exhibitions on women’s suffrage.
Indeed, in practice, the 19th Amendment only guaranteed protections for white women; women of color, and many men, were blocked by poll taxes and other obstacles until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination. Even today, as the idea of universal suffrage is celebrated, the reality is that each American’s ability to vote still depends on who they are and where they live.
“It’s not my anniversary,” says Mikki Kendall, a writer whose subjects include the intersection of feminism and race. She has two books about women’s political engagement coming out in the next few months: Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists (Ten Speed, Nov.), a sweeping graphic history of women’s rights illustrated by A. D’Amico, and Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot (Viking, Feb. 2020). “Not all women got rights at the same time.”
Dodson is familiar with this sentiment. “I’ve seen too many articles saying, ‘Oh, we really shouldn’t celebrate these people’ and, ‘Black people don’t have anything to celebrate,’ ” she says. “That’s not true. There are too many black women who worked very hard for [suffrage]. They wouldn’t have fought that hard if it didn’t mean something.”
Dodson’s strategy is to “start talking about the things that pioneering black women did do,” she says, citing as one example Maria Miller Stewart, a free black woman who, in the 1830s, became the first American woman to leave records of her public speeches about political issues such as abolition. “The whole women’s movement was an outgrowth of the abolitionist movement,” Dodson says.
The names most commonly associated with women’s suffrage are Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who organized what’s known as the first women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848. That moment, many decades in the making, kicked off a 72-year campaign for constitutional protection. A schism in the movement in the late 1890s stemmed from the fact that many members, including Stanton and Anthony, prioritized the rights of white women above those of African-American women and men.
Here, we speak with authors and editors whose books examine this legacy, and discuss how setbacks and missteps in the battle for suffrage inform the current political and social moment.
Rock the Vote
“I had been taught very little in school—shockingly little—about the lengthy, complex, fraught movement for women’s suffrage in this country,” Rebecca Traister wrote in a 2018 article for The Cut, naming six books that inspired her then-new title Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. “And I often find it strange how few comprehensive texts there are about it.”
An exception, Traister wrote, is One Woman, One Vote, a 1995 essay collection edited by Marjorie J. Spruill that NewSage Press published as a companion to a PBS documentary of the same name. The publisher is releasing a revised and expanded second edition in spring 2020.
“It tells the overall story, from why women didn’t have the vote, and why a suffrage movement was necessary in the first place,” Spruill says, “all the way through to ‘what difference did it make?’ ” The focus, she says, is not just on the big moments but on incremental change, as women of all backgrounds strategized “how to get men to agree that women should have the vote.”
Spruill, a professor emerita of history at the University of South Carolina, has concentrated her research on the South, where, she says, “the suffrage movement had the hardest time, the most obstacles, and least success.” She adds that she values the criticism about racism in the ranks, in the leadership, and in some of the strategies suffragists used in pursuit of the vote. “People are right to deplore the fact that there was so much prejudice against African-Americans getting voting rights,” she says, adding that those focused on national suffrage were “between a rock and a hard place,” fighting to get the amendment through Congress and the Jim Crow South.
In February 2020 Simon and Schuster will publish Suffrage by retired history professor Ellen Carol DuBois; Spruill calls her “one of the most well-known and prolific scholars of the suffrage movement in the United States.” (DuBois also has written an introduction to a new edition of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s autobiography; see “The Political Is Personal.”)
DuBois’s editor, S&S v-p and executive editor Bob Bender, says Suffrage is meant to have wide appeal, in bookstores and on college campuses. It too addresses the fact that women of color were “largely marginalized in the overall movement—represented, but never at the center of it,” Bender notes. DuBois writes about the contributions of abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, for one, and journalist and antilynching activist Ida B. Wells, who marched alongside her state’s white delegation to the first suffragist march on Washington, D.C., in 1913, ignoring the rules dictating that black women march in the back.
Doris Weatherford’s Victory for the Vote (Mar. 2020) updates her A History of the American Suffragist Movement, originally published in 1998 by the academic press ABC-CLIO, with a foreword by Geraldine Ferraro. Miami indie Mango Publishing will release Winning the Vote with a new foreword by Nancy Pelosi and new sections focused on women of color as well as challenges to reproductive rights and the ongoing fight for the Equal Rights Amendment.
“The overall message is how politically astute these women have been and how active they were,” Weatherford says, countering the common misperception of the movement as little more than a few names and some white dresses. Rather, she adds, suffragists “were really sophisticated politicians, and this was a hard, hard fight.”
Seeds of Change
Weatherford’s book traces the philosophical roots of the Seneca Falls convention to the 17th century and women who defied the dominant religious leadership in the nascent American colonies. Kendall, in Amazons, goes back even further, depicting women advocating for their rights beginning in Sumer in 3000 BCE. A number of forthcoming titles likewise expand the focus beyond the usual narrative to look at strides made incrementally across the U.S., and outside of it.
British publisher Pen and Sword Books is releasing several titles on the fight for women’s voting rights on that side of the Atlantic, a battle that both paved the way for and paralleled that of women in the United States. September brings Women’s Suffrage in Scotland by Carole O’Connor, and in December, Suffragettes of Kent by Jennifer Godfrey and Suffragette Planners and Plotters by Kathryn Atherton. The latter looks at the tumultuous relationship between two couples who led the militant movement: the Pankhursts, who remain well-known for their activism, and the Pethick-Lawrences, whose contributions have been largely forgotten.
In the U.S., before women’s suffrage became the law of the land, many women were able to cast votes in western territories and states. No Place for a Woman (TwoDot, Mar. 2020) by Chris Enss, who has written dozens of books on the Old West, traces the history of the vote along the frontier. In 1869, women in the Wyoming Territory gained the right to vote, and the following year, Louisa Swain of Laramie, Wyo., was the first woman in the U.S. to cast a ballot. When Wyoming was admitted to the Union in 1890, it became the first state where women had voting rights; Colorado, Utah, and other Western states followed.
Votes for Women, which University of Nebraska Press released in August, looks at the suffrage movement in that state and the lead-up to ratifying the 19th Amendment; it was the 14th state to do so. The book, edited by David L. Bristow of History Nebraska, the state historical society, showcases previously published articles related to suffrage efforts in the state, and archival photos from the historical society’s collection.
“The national story is going to get a lot of attention,” Bristow says, “so we wanted to make sure that we gave our readers a regional connection.”
Exploring Women’s Suffrage Through 50 Historic Treasures by Jessica D. Jenkins (Feb. 2020), which launches a series copublished by Rowman & Littlefield and the American Association for State and Local History, also aims to help readers draw a deeper connection to the suffrage story. “Today, people, and especially younger people, are more visual,” says Charles Harmon, executive editor at the publisher. “It’s one thing to describe a pamphlet of a suffrage rally, and another thing to see it.”
The earliest artifact shown in the book is Susan B. Anthony’s copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by English philosopher and novelist Mary Wollstonecraft, originally published in 1792; Anthony donated it to the Library of Congress in 1903. Other personal items include a pair of shoes worn by Jeannette Rankin, who fought for suffrage in Washington State, which granted women’s voting rights in 1910, and in Montana, which followed suit in 1914; she became the first woman sworn into the U.S. Congress in 1917. The newest is a pink knitted pussyhat, from the January 2017 global women’s marches.
The Next 100 Years
Several new books delve into the decades that followed the amendment’s ratification—the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act, which safeguarded every American’s constitutional right to vote, and women’s role in American political life today.
University of Houston history professor Leandra Zarnow says that when she first heard talk of the anniversary, she was surprised by the focus on 1920 as an end point. “We want to celebrate the centennial, but also want to have a sober conversation about where women are today and how difficult it has been for women to make inroads.” She and historian Stacie Taranto, of Ramapo College of New Jersey, edited the essay collection Suffrage at 100: Women’s Uneven Road in American Politics Since 1920, which John Hopkins University Press will publish in July 2020.
Also that month, Library of America will release American Women’s Suffrage by Susan Ware, whose previous book, Why They Marched, profiled 19 lesser-known suffrage activists. Her new title is an 800-page anthology of writings from 1776 to 1965 that “recovers the voices of the women and men who embodied the contest for civil rights for all,” according to the publisher, including “the black, Chinese, and American Indian women and men who were not only essential to the movement but expanded its directions and aims, as well as the antisuffragists who worried about where the country would head if suffrage were universal.”
Political scientists Christina Wolbrecht and J. Kevin Corder began working on A Century of Votes for Women (Mar. 2020) several years ago, without having today’s context of the Women’s March or #MeToo, says their editor, Sara Doskow of Cambridge University Press. “But we are at a time when gender is becoming more salient.” The book’s biggest takeaway, she adds: “There is no such thing as the ‘woman’ voter.” Rather, the book “shows how women were shaped by their times. It helps explain what we saw in 2016 and why partisanship is a much stronger predictor than gender.”
Other forthcoming books function as calls to action. Timed for the next Women’s History month, in March 2020, is Grand Central’s She Proclaims by Jennifer Palmieri (author of Dear Madam President, with 50,000 print copies sold since 2018, per BookScan); it’s a “Declaration of Independence from a man’s world,” in the words of the subtitle, offering a roadmap for challenging the patriarchy.
At the end of August, Dutton published See Jane Win by journalist Caitlin Moscatello, a look at the historic number of women who ran for office in 2018, from the start of their campaigns through the start of the current term. They include Lauren Underwood, the U.S. representative for Illinois’s 14th district, the first woman and the first person of color to represent her district. She adopted for her campaign “Unbought and Unbossed,” the slogan of the first African-American woman elected to Congress, New York’s Shirley Chisholm.
Looking ahead to the next election cycle, Skyhorse will publish the 2020 edition of Your Voice, Your Vote in January. Author Martha Burk, a Ms. magazine editor and former chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, self-published two previous versions, in 2008 and 2012. “This is something that one of our editors found, and we were excited,” says Julie Ganz, editor at Skyhorse. “We felt it was important to sign up.” Chapters focus on a broad spectrum of issues—pay equity and Social Security, military spending and affirmative action—offering tools aimed at guiding women voters to, as the subtitle puts it, be “the change we need.”
Sarah J. Robbins is a writer and editor in Michigan who has covered and collaborated with women activists from around the world.
Note: The title of Doris Weatherford's book changed after this article went to press. The text has been updated to reflect the current title.
Below, more on the women's suffrage centennial.
The Political Is Personal: Women’s Suffrage Centennial
New books spotlight the work of individual noisemakers and rule breakers.
Herstories: Women’s Suffrage Centennial
Rich archival material illustrates women’s experiences and accomplishments.
The Youth Vote: Women’s Suffrage Centennial
Forthcoming titles introduce key figures in the ongoing fight for voting rights, years before their intended readership can cast a ballot.