Politics & Society » Gender

The best books on Women’s Suffrage

recommended by Susan Ware

Interview by Eve Gerber

How many suffragists can you name? Feminist historian Susan Ware, author of a new history of the American women's suffrage movement, urges us to remember how important suffrage was in the fight for women's rights, on the cusp of its US centennial—and reveals the story of women getting the right to vote didn't just begin at Seneca Falls.

Susan Ware

A pioneer in the field of women’s history and a leading feminist biographer, Susan Ware is the author and editor of numerous books on twentieth-century US history. Educated at Wellesley College and Harvard University, she has taught at New York University and Harvard, where she served as editor of the biographical dictionary Notable American Women: Completing the Twentieth Century (2004). Since 2012, she has served as the general editor of the American National Biography. Ware has long been associated with the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study where she serves as the Honorary Women’s Suffrage Centennial Historian. The Library of America will publish a women’s suffrage anthology edited by Ware in 2020.

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In your recent book Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote, you observe, “Most Americans dismiss the Nineteenth Amendment as a minor inconsequential reform, in contrast to the anti-slavery and civil rights movements, which are presented as central to the ongoing struggle for equality and diversity in a democratic society.” I want to begin by asking you a question posed in your introduction: Why hasn’t the suffrage movement won a similar place in the historical canon?

Why don’t more people know about the suffrage movement? It was, after all, the largest political mobilization of women to date. It drew on the time, talent and energy of three generations of women, and yet few Americans could name more than a single suffragist. It is a puzzle to me. I fear one of the reasons is that we don’t know as much as we should about the history of American women.

And it’s not for lack of trying. There were multiple early histories of the suffrage movement—attempts to cement its significance in American history—written by the suffragists themselves. But it didn’t work. By the time you get to World War II, what women had gone through to get the vote was forgotten, in the way that women’s contributions are so often marginalized.

The centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment seems like a good chance to rectify that. What I’m hoping is that the centennial will prompt people to think: ‘Why don’t I know more about the suffrage movement? Maybe I’d like to learn a little bit more—and maybe I’ll read that new book by Susan Ware!’

It’s a wonderful read; each chapter tells us about a different set of fascinating characters and objects and events. I couldn’t stop turning pages. What did you set out to achieve by writing it?

There is the sense that the history of the suffrage movement was bland or boring or unimportant, but that is not accurate. The women’s suffrage movement was filled with creative, unconventional and courageous characters. I set out to tell their stories in a way that would engage readers. I thought another doorstop of a book about the sweeping history of the movement would be boring to read and write. So, I embraced the strategy of conveying the history through a combination of short biographical portraits of suffragists paired with the stories of objects identified with the movement.

“There is the sense that the history of the suffrage movement was bland or boring or unimportant, but that is not accurate”

My secondary purpose was to knock known leaders off their pedestals. There is much more to any social movement than its national leaders; that’s especially true of the suffrage movement. Some think of the suffrage movement as the story of white women. I tried to paint an inclusive group portrait of the movement, including the many African American suffragists, who were a critical part of the movement, to make clear that the story of suffrage is broader than the biographies of a few known white, wealthy, native-born leaders.

The Myth of Seneca Falls by Lisa Tetrault seems like the right place to start in your list of books on the suffrage movement.

The Seneca Falls Convention, held in a small upstate New York town in the summer of 1848, was convened by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and several other anti-slavery activists who were interested in women’s rights. They came together and drew up what would become known as The Declaration of Sentiments, which begins with a list which was quite intentionally reminiscent of the Declaration of Independence. It says:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed.

It goes on from there to indict men for all the wrongs they have done to women. And one of the demands that it makes is for women to be given the franchise. That’s why it’s often pointed to as the beginning of the struggle for suffrage.

In their voluminous narrative History of Woman Suffrage, which was published from 1881 to 1922, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony crafted an origin story for the suffrage movement centered on this one convention. A measure of their success is that to the extent any American knows anything about the history of suffrage, what they tend to mention first is Seneca Falls.

The Myth of Seneca Falls brilliantly shows that Seneca Falls is not the only place to start the story—there are many others. For instance, you could start the story in 1832 with an African American woman named Mariah Stewart, who spoke about women’s rights in public for the first time.

Seneca Falls was undeniably important, but Lisa Tetrault shows how Anthony and Stanton privileged certain parts of the story and neglected others. She challenges us to think about how the ones who get to tell the story often omit alternative viewpoints and how collective memory is formed.

How does the myth of Seneca Falls skew the story?

The Boston-led wing of the suffrage movement—led by Lucy Stone, her husband Henry Blackwell and Julia Ward Howe—is hardly mentioned in what is supposed to be a comprehensive account. They were written out of the story. Canonizing Seneca falls reinforces a certain vision of suffrage, one that makes the vote primary and marginalizes not only the contributions of Lucy Stone, and her followers, but African American activists. So many activists were omitted from the story and consequently their contributions were largely forgotten. In that sense “the myth of Seneca Falls” continues to have an impact.

The Concise History of Woman Suffrage is a shorter version of the book we’ve been tangentially talking about. Please tell us about this book, and the history that inspired it.

The foundational text for the creation of the myth of Seneca Falls was written by three suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage. They are really our first women’s historians. They did a three-volume history of women’s suffrage that came out in 1881, 1882 and 1886. Three more volumes followed in 1902 and 1922. These six volumes contain more than 5,000 pages of documents, including articles, speeches and convention programs.

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They lined up all these documents to make sure that the story, albeit their story, was told. It’s hard not to go through those documents and marvel at the effort it must’ve taken to compile this material. It was a flawed but nevertheless formidable feat. Readers should remind themselves that the compilers made choices to privilege their influence on the movement. It’s a very useful source.

It’s remarkable to read, but you don’t necessarily want to read 6,000 pages of it. That’s why Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle put together this Concise History of Woman Suffrage. It contains highlights and gives you a sense of the whole.

What will readers get out of reading these primary documents that they would miss if they only read secondary sources?

This treasure trove of documents together compose a social history of the movement. You can page through marriage protests from 1850 and Henry Blackwell’s lecture to an 1873 convention.

“These documents show the women’s suffrage movement was really a women’s rights movement.”

Reading these documents gives you a sense of how much effort went into this movement. Some of these speeches are 20 pages of tiny print. That must have been three hours. They’re lengthy, but they present well-supported views about, for instance, how the whole legal system is skewed against women, the effect of married women having so few property rights, and the lack of professional opportunities for women. These speeches are about issues much broader than the vote. They’re about women’s economic independence. The breadth of their vision comes through. These documents show the women’s suffrage movement was really a women’s rights movement.

It’s very useful for people to see the words that they use. You see the racism of the movement in documents, especially during Reconstruction into the 1890s.

Before we discuss your books, can you fill us in on how the struggle for women’s suffrage and the struggle for racial justice became so thornily intertwined?

The reason why women’s suffrage and the struggle for the rights of African Americans (especially men) were so intertwined has to do with the aftermath of the Civil War, specifically with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which guaranteed political rights, including the right to vote, to newly liberated male slaves. White women at the time hoped that as the country was enfranchising former slaves, they too would be enfranchised. Women had already been making that demand for 50 years. For activists, it became a question of priorities. Who got priority: women or African American men? It came down to a choice: Do we advocate for the Fifteenth Amendment or sit back because women are barred from voting? It’s all very tied up. In this moment, it seemed more important to solidify the legacy of the Civil War than to insist that women get the vote along with African American men.

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After the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment some suffrage leaders made pretty racist arguments. Saying, give us white women the vote, we’re more educated than immigrants, as well as African Americans. Then, when we get to 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment didn’t address the fact that African American southern women were still going to be disfranchised by poll taxes and literacy tests.

The fact that the Fifteenth Amendment resulted in real losses of rights for women who had fought for abolition—and that women were expected to un-begrudgingly support an alteration to the Constitution that wrote into law their inferior status—is one of the more vexed aspects of American history.

You’re right, the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment made the fight for the Nineteenth amendment necessary to secure the vote for women. But we do need to remember that most voting laws are controlled by states. Most of the women who were getting the vote before the Nineteenth Amendment had been enfranchised by individual states. But in terms of the United States Constitution and national voting, as soon as that word ‘male’ went in the Fifteenth Amendment, it was going to take another amendment to make sure that females could vote. Suffragists fought 50 years for that amendment.

All Bound Up Together is the next of your suffrage book choices I wanted to talk about. Please tell me about its author and the book’s pertinence to this topic.

African American women were not welcomed in many white suffrage parades and organizations, but they were nevertheless critical to the movement. It’s very important to always keep African American women’s stories in the mix.

Martha Jones’s book All Bound Up Together is not specifically about black suffragists. African American women’s activism was much broader, addressing the way that African American men and women were treated as second-class citizens. These activists were raising questions about women’s roles and voting in all kinds of places—through churches, through voluntary organizations and through the women’s club movement, especially starting in the 1890s.

All Bound Up Together describes an interlocking network in which activists are never just out for women’s issues; activism is always part of what we now call an intersectional vision, which links race, class, and sex. Some suffragists looked at their situation solely through the lens of gender and ignored their class privilege. Black suffragists, starting in 1837 and moving all the way forward, had a much broader vision. This book by Martha Jones adds important dimensions to that history.

After reading your book about Polly Porter’s history of activism—which is not only about women but also other progressive causes and Maud Nathan’s activism for workers’ rights—I was struck by how often suffragists seemed to be pushing for causes that had nothing to do with gender.

The women that you mentioned, along with many other suffragists, had approaches that we would call ‘intersectional’ today. They weren’t just thinking about gender; they were thinking about how class affected women’s status, too. You see many examples of this intersectional vision in the suffrage movement. You certainly see it among the African American suffragists. But you are right to point out that some of the more progressive white women had this perspective.

The Woman’s Hour is your next choice. Why’d you choose this one?

This is a really good read by Elaine Weiss. It makes the battles for ratification in Tennessee, the last state that was needed to ratify in August of 1920, into a page-turner. There was a lot going on in the six weeks of Tennessee history that she writes about. She tells the story by focusing on three women, using them as the ‘through threads’ to a huge amount of history. One of the figures she focuses on was the head of the mainstream suffrage organization, Carrie Chapman Catt. A second is Sue Shelton White, an activist with the National Women’s Party, which is the rival of the mainstream group. And the third is a woman named Josephine Pearson, who is the leader of the Tennessee anti-suffrage movement.

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Weiss is able to use those three stories to examine, in detail, this moment, which was critical to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. In August of 1920, they were running out of time to pass the amendment in time for women to be able to vote in the upcoming 1920 presidential election. People think women winning the right to vote was inevitable. And they seem to think of course states would ratify the amendment. Well, it was a battle, with backroom deals and dramatic last-minute changes.

These books all seem to highlight how women used limited public avenues of expression to secure their political rights.

The field of feminist history has uncovered that even when women didn’t have the vote or couldn’t hold office, they still acted to influence political outcomes. Once you begin to look at the ways in which women exercise political power, through their churches, through voluntary groups, through their communities, you begin to see that this sense that women haven’t ever accomplished anything politically is false.

“To get the vote, women had to be incredibly politically savvy”

To get the vote, women had to be incredibly politically savvy. They needed to learn how to lobby, raise money, get publicity, set up organizations, organize petition drives and mobilize male voters. Throughout American history—during the Revolution, as abolitionists, as Civil War wives and mothers—women were acting politically. The suffrage movement is an excellent example of that.

The Right to Vote, by Pulitzer-winning Harvard History Professor Alexander Keyssar, is your final selection. Why did you choose this one?

This is about the only comprehensive history of the right to vote. Alexander Keyssar originally published this book in 2000, about two months before the election contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore. It was spectacular timing, all of a sudden people were paying a lot of attention to ballot box access and voting suppression.

Americans often think that we have universal suffrage—that everybody can vote and that it’s always been that way. That’s not correct. Keyssar traces back to the property qualifications for voting. At the founding of our country, you had to have a certain level of affluence to cast a vote. He looks at the racial dynamics of voting after the Civil War and the demand for restricting immigrants’ access to the ballot box through literacy tests. This book is a critical read because it reminds us that voting rights are always contested.

It puts the suffrage story, the story of women organizing to get the vote, into the larger history of voting. Seeing the suffrage movement out of its silo shows its commonalities with other movements. Keyssar shows that sometimes voting rights expand and sometimes they contract. Voting and citizenship have been contested in the past and therefore shouldn’t be taken for granted in the future.

Keyssar claimed a “triumphalist presumption” led to a scholarly silence on suffrage prior to the publication of The Right to Votes first edition. Does a progressive presumption still prevail amongst historians?

The last three years has certainly shown that aspects of American political life which many of us thought were settled are actually contingent. Certainly, this is true with voting. We’ve seen battles over gerrymandering and voter suppression through ID laws and other means. These questions are all about political power and are getting decided in ways that are making it hard for certain people to exercise their right to vote.

The reason I included The Right to Vote is because in the current political moment, the right to vote is under attack. This book and the suffrage centennial remind us that when we take a right for granted, we risk losing it.

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Suffragists knew that the vote is the most effective tool for effecting social change. They were the voting rights activists of their day, but they’re part of the larger fight to make sure that the electorate is as wide and representative as possible. Voting rights activists of today stand on the shoulders of suffragists.

The suffrage movement is also part of the larger story of women mobilization and women’s political activism. The current political climate shows us that the struggle for women’s rights is subject to reversal. So, both history and today’s papers remind us that it remains essential for activists to push forward.

Editor’s note:

In the initial publication of this interview, editors mistakenly substituted the word “suffragette” or “suffragettes” instead of “suffragist” and “suffragists.” We apologize for misquoting Professor Susan Ware who subsequently explained the important distinction between these terms, as quoted below:

American suffragists never referred to themselves as Suffragettes.  That term is rightly applied to the British movement but should not be used here.  Why?  Because the American women consciously tried to distance themselves from the way that the British movement embraced violence against property, something that was never countenanced in the U.S.  True, there was suffrage militance (like picketing the White House) but it never involved violence against people or property.  American suffragists wanted to make clear that they were not going that route.

We apologize to Professor Ware and our readers for this mistake. 

Interview by Eve Gerber

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Susan Ware

A pioneer in the field of women’s history and a leading feminist biographer, Susan Ware is the author and editor of numerous books on twentieth-century US history. Educated at Wellesley College and Harvard University, she has taught at New York University and Harvard, where she served as editor of the biographical dictionary Notable American Women: Completing the Twentieth Century (2004). Since 2012, she has served as the general editor of the American National Biography. Ware has long been associated with the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study where she serves as the Honorary Women’s Suffrage Centennial Historian. The Library of America will publish a women’s suffrage anthology edited by Ware in 2020.