Susanna Sturgis's Reviews > The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote

The Woman's Hour by Elaine F. Weiss
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
34464667
's review

it was amazing
bookshelves: feminism, history, justice, nonfiction, politics, women

In the run-up to 2020, the 19th Amendment's centennial, many books have been published or reprinted dealing with the U.S. suffrage movement, the ratification process, and the subsequent decades-long struggle to extend the franchise to black women and people of color in general. If your knowledge of the history is rusty at best, this is a great place to start; even if you're up on the subject, you'll get plenty out of The Woman's Hour. The lengthy illustration section is particularly wonderful.

Elaine Weiss focuses on the struggle to persuade the Tennessee state legislature to become the 36th and final state to ratify. It's a nail-biter even if you know how it turned out (non-spoiler alert: It did pass). Through this lens, Weiss works in plenty of backstory, not only about the women's rights and suffrage movements but about the other historical currents that came to a head in Tennessee in the summer of 1920.

The tapestry is complex indeed, but Weiss makes it clear by following several threads: key organizations and the women working through them – the well-funded National American Woman's Suffrage Association, headed by Carrie Chapman Catt; the National Woman's Party, whose efforts were led by Tennessee native Sue Shelton White with guidance from party head Alice Paul, who was stuck in Washington raising money; and the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, led by Josephine Pearson.

A long and deep shadow was cast by the Civil War: the anti-suffrage forces based most of their arguments on white supremacy, the cult of (white) southern womanhood, and/or the doctrine of states' rights. The suffrage movement itself had bitterly split in the wake of abolition, particularly over the decision not to include sex in the 15th Amendment, which prohibited both the federal government and the states from denying citizens the right to vote based on "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." (Southern states in particular flouted this so successfully for so long that it wasn't until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that people of color in many places got the actual right to vote, and as we all know, the fight isn't over yet.)

That wasn't all either. 1920 was a presidential election year. President Woodrow Wilson had been virtually incapacitated by a stroke; his closest advisers and his wife, Edith (who was against suffrage), were largely running the White House. Vying for the presidency were Republican Warren Harding (as mealy-mouthed and corruptible as his eventual administration would turn out to be) and Democrat James Cox, who has been largely forgotten because he lost but whose VP candidate, one Franklin Delano Roosevelt, went on to much greater things. Both did their best to remain as aloof as possible, but the continuous lobbying of the Anti and "Suff" activists made this difficult.

Economic interests were in play as well. Two of Tennessee's biggest, the railroads and the liquor industry (you'd barely know that Prohibition was on at the time), were aligned against women's suffrage and highly influential in the Tennessee legislature. Their money wasn't especially "dark" -- it was right out in the open, and the political arm-twisting could be blatant.

Weiss does a masterful job of laying all this out, and in the process she conveys the intense amount of work that goes into making change. In hindsight it may seem to have been a done deal from the get-go. Weiss reminds us: No way. Having finished this book, I'm astonished that it happened at all, and that Alice Paul was finally able to sew the 36th star on her suffrage flag.

And that's another thing: If you start the count at Seneca Falls in 1848, it took 72 years. None of the women who started the fight lived to see it completed. None of the women who saw it through to the end were born when it started. Their persistence and their organizing skills are an important part of their legacy. There's plenty to celebrate in 2020, the centennial year, and an example to live up to.
1 like · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Woman's Hour.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

December 20, 2019 – Started Reading
December 30, 2019 – Finished Reading
December 31, 2019 – Shelved
December 31, 2019 – Shelved as: feminism
December 31, 2019 – Shelved as: history
December 31, 2019 – Shelved as: justice
December 31, 2019 – Shelved as: nonfiction
December 31, 2019 – Shelved as: politics
December 31, 2019 – Shelved as: women

No comments have been added yet.