Susanna Sturgis's Reviews > Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote

Why They Marched by Susan Ware
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bookshelves: women, politics, nonfiction, history, biography, feminism, justice

From the title I expected stories about the rank-and-file supporters of women's suffrage, the "ordinary" activists who did the work behind the scenes and under the radar. This book isn't quite that (though I'd welcome such a thing if/when it appears). Most of these women were not at all "behind the scenes and under the radar" in their own time. A couple, like Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth, are well known, even iconic, today, though as with most icons we don't know as much about them as we think we do. Other names are familiar to anyone who's done some reading in women's history: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Alice Stone Blackwell, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Rose Schneiderman, Mary Church Terrell, Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt. But most of the women featured here were public figures in their day, organizers who did a lot more than march.

What Why They Marched does wonderfully and importantly is focus on various aspects of the suffrage movement that are often ignored or slighted. Did you realize that Mormon women were a strong voice for suffrage? I sure didn't. I did know that Utah was among the first states to give women the right to vote -- women could vote in Utah as soon as it became a territory in 1870 -- and that Utah was overwhelmingly Mormon, but I didn't make the connection.

When the suffrage movement is taken out of its historical context, one thing that often gets lost is what author Susan Ware calls "the shadow of the Confederacy." This is the title of chapter 6, but the shadow suffuses several other chapters as well. The racism of many white suffragists has been well documented, but less attention has been paid to systemic white supremacy and how deeply it affected political realities on the ground.

This comes to the fore in Ware's last chapter, about the fight to get the Tennessee legislature to ratify what became the 19th Amendment. (Elaine Weiss's The Woman's Hour is entirely devoted to this and highly recommended. It's a page-turner even when you know how it comes out.) Sue Shelton White, Tennessee native, working woman, and organizer for the National Woman's Party, played a key role here. She's near the top of my list of suffragists who should be much better known today.

Ida Wells-Barnett is best known for her heroic work to expose the prevalence of lynching; she was also an active suffragist and community organizer in Chicago. Since the white organizers for women's suffrage marginalized or outright ignored black women, Wells-Barnett founded the Alpha Suffrage Club to mobilize black women not only for suffrage but for political participation on a wider scale. When the white organizers of the great 1913 suffrage march on Washington, timed to coincide with the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, relegated women of color to the back of the march, Wells-Barnett first argued against the policy – and then took action: she waited on the curb till the front of the procession passed by, then she stepped off and joined the leaders.

Mary Church Terrell is known for her activism on behalf of civil rights and women's suffrage, but I didn't know that she spoke four languages – and that she addressed a 1904 meeting in Berlin of the International Council of Women in German.

The more I read about the suffrage movement, the more struck I am by the suffragists' organizing ingenuity and persistence over at least seven decades (and longer once you realize that Seneca Falls didn't come out of nowhere). They pioneered some strategies that we've long taken for granted. Ware's chapter 18, "Maud Wood Park and the Front Door Lobby," was an eye-opener for me. I don't know about you, but I'd never heard of Maud Wood Park. She organized the several-year lobbying effort that persuaded both houses of Congress to pass the suffrage bill and in the process practically invented the kind of lobbying that happens out in the open, not in smoke-filled backrooms. This was, as Ware notes, "difficult and often tedious work. It lacked the glamour of marching in a suffrage parade, addressing an open-air meeting, or picketing the White House, but it was absolutely crucial to the long suffrage campaign's success."

Amen. What I love most about Why They Marched is how much it says about why we march, and how we got to where we are. I might suggest that you come to it after brushing up a bit on suffrage history, but even if you don't, you'll get a lot out of this book – and you'll probably want to read more.
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Reading Progress

January 20, 2020 – Started Reading
January 20, 2020 – Shelved
January 20, 2020 – Shelved as: women
January 20, 2020 – Shelved as: politics
January 20, 2020 – Shelved as: nonfiction
January 20, 2020 – Shelved as: history
January 20, 2020 – Shelved as: biography
January 20, 2020 – Shelved as: feminism
January 20, 2020 – Shelved as: justice
January 28, 2020 – Finished Reading

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