A Chapter in History Women Need to Know About

Journalist Elaine Weiss thinks of herself as well-read.  She votes in every election and considers herself politically aware. But five years ago she realized there was a glaring gap in her knowledge.

By Sue Tomchin

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“I didn’t understand when women got the vote and I talked to my friends and they were equally vague about it,” Weiss told me when I spoke to her by phone.  “I thought, wow, this was a really big moment in our history when half the citizens of the U.S. became enfranchised and yet we know so little about it....We know so much about the Civil War and World War II and these are important moments in our national history, but this was one of the great tests of democracy.”

 Elaine Weiss (credit: Nina Subin)

Elaine Weiss (credit: Nina Subin)

Her consciousness raised, Weiss decided to do something about the knowledge gap. She embarked on five years of research and writing that culminated in The Woman’s Hour, an absorbing new book that tells the story of the nail-biting climax of the seven-decade fight for votes for women.

This is a book that we need to read. The experience will fill you with gratitude for the women who worked so diligently and so long so we could fully participate in our democracy. You’ll also understand the context for many issues that still impact politics today— race, states’ rights, attitudes toward gender roles, class, and the pervasive influence of money and power.

“Winning the vote required seventy-two years of ceaseless agitation by three generations of dedicated, fearless suffragists, who sought to overturn centuries of law and millennia of tradition concerning gender roles,” Weiss writes in the introduction of her book. “It took more than nine hundred local, state, and national campaigns, involving tens of thousands of grassroots volunteers, financed by millions of dollars of mostly small (and a few large) donations by women across the country….Through the decades, ‘the Cause’ changed the way women saw themselves and transformed society’s view of women.”

Weiss’s lively narrative captures a portrait of the scene in hot, steamy Nashville in August 1920 with the enfranchisement showdown looming.  One more state must ratify for the women’s suffrage amendment to become federal law and the only state still in play is Tennessee. Forces converge in the city—“Suffs” and “Antis;” political operatives and corporate lobbyists; journalists and agents of dark money. As the legislators congregate, tensions build and dirty tricks and venomous verbal attacks and threats multiply. Just one example: When legislator Harry Burn voted for suffrage at the urging of his mother, Anti forces scheme to accuse him of corruption, and even appear on his mother’s doorstep to pressure her.

The narrative is character-driven and filled with fascinating individuals on both sides of the issue. Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), arrives from New York and checks into a room at the Hotel Hermitage, the center of activities. Alice Paul, head of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), the militant wing of the suffrage movement, sends her trusted deputy Sue Shelton White, a Tennessee native, to Nashville. Sue, “with a steely resolve behind soft brown eyes,” proudly wears the prison pin that symbolized the five days she spent in the fetid Occoquan Workhouse jail after being arrested for picketing the White House. And Josephine Pearson, president of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, arrives from her home in southeastern Tennessee, intent on “beating back the scourge of suffrage,” and the threat she believes it poses to morality and the exalted role of women as keepers of home and family. “Woman’s suffrage could upend the supremacy of the white race and the southern way of life,” Pearson felt.

Such prominent figures as President Woodrow Wilson, Republican Presidential nominee Warren Harding, Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee Franklin Roosevelt, African-American civil rights activist Frederick Douglass, and even Eleanor Roosevelt make appearances in the book.

But beyond these notables and the movement’s leaders, we meet the diligent foot soldiers, the Suffs who fan out across the city and the state, traveling by train, wagon and foot to buttonhole legislators, trying to convince them to support the amendment.  As the vote nears, many legislators shift their positions back and forth, depending on the pressure and inducements brought to bear including cash, job offers, promises of loans and political support, and even free shots of Tennessee whiskey at the Jack Daniels suite in the Hotel Hermitage, despite Prohibition.

Two Jewish suffrage supporters are among those play important roles in the fight. One is twenty-five-year-old Anita Pollitzer, the youngest daughter of a prosperous family in Charleston, S.C., who works for the NWP in Washington. A vivacious brunette, she is adept at talking about politics and is sent to Tennessee to lobby legislators. The second is Joe Hanover, a member of the Tennessee house from Memphis. He took on the role of floor leader and helped to guide the amendment to ratification, enduring threats and vituperation for his position. Hanover emigrated as a child from Poland with his parents and is committed to women’s enfranchisement out of the conviction that here in America women like his mother should have the right to vote.

One can’t help but admire the strength of those who fought for suffrage, not only in Tennessee, but over the seventy-two years leading up to this final fight. Weiss says that she came away researching the book impressed with what the early supporters were able to achieve, despite limited modes of communication and transportation. “When the movement began in mid-19th century the telegraph was new and passenger travel on trains wasn’t yet common,” she said. “There wasn’t a transcontinental railroad. There were no cars, no telephones and no typewriters. Everything was handwritten and sent by mail. Journeys were arduous, but these women did it. They were very committed.”  

Those early suffragists faced intense resistance and abuse, Weiss said. “When the movement begins it is considered a totally outrageous, embarrassing, ridiculous stance for a woman to take. The women who first go out to speak about suffrage are vilified as improper and unladylike, as bad mothers and bad wives. Their job is to make the cogent points about democracy and justice and the American ideal of government by the people. These are all very strong arguments but coming from a woman nobody wanted to listen.”

Despite the difficulties of their work, they made great strides. By the early years of the 20th century, she said, the suffrage movement had grown quite sophisticated, with headquarters and state offices and skilled fund raising. Enfranchisement, however, remained elusive. Some states had enfranchised women, but suffragists realized that many states would never budge. That’s when they decided to work toward a constitutional amendment.

One of the movement’s strengths, Weiss believes, and something today’s women’s movement can learn from, she says, was its mentoring of new leaders—an important factor since it took three generations of women to achieve enfranchisement.  “There is a real grooming of the next generation,” Weiss said. “Susan B. Anthony takes what she calls her nieces, young women in whom she sees potential, commitment, passion and talent and makes them her apprentices. She takes them on the road with her and gives them increasing responsibility.”

When Anthony retires in 1906, Weiss said, she is able to declare, “Failure is impossible” because young women are prepared to take her place, including Carrie Catt, one of her mentees.

One area where the suffrage movement fell very short was in how it handled racism. During debate in the Tennessee state house, Suff leaders decided not to invite Juno Frankie Pierce, a black suffrage leader, to join them in the gallery. Her presence would have hurt their efforts to win ratification. They made moral compromises for the “good of the movement,” Weiss notes. “The suffragists, mostly in the South and somewhat in the North, used arguments that I don’t think anyone should be proud of,” Weiss said. “They would say, don’t worry, if you give all women the vote, black women will get the vote, but there are more white women, so white supremacy won’t be disturbed.”  And when the vote was finally won in 1920, “they did not do enough to make sure that the black women in the South wouldn’t be robbed of that vote, and they were.”

While it’s been nearly 100 years since the 19th amendment passed, some of the same issues come into play in politics, Weiss explains. “Today, we have states trying to restrict voting usually in minority areas, and using all kinds of tricks to suppress legitimate voting,” she said. “Section 5 of the voting rights act of 1967 has been gutted, so that federal oversight is compromised in some states.  So, we’re fighting it [racism] again.”

Ultimately, Weiss notes, the battle for suffrage came down in large part to politics. “Things are done for party advantage, which is still the case now. When you talk about voter suppression and gerrymandering, it all has to do with party power. You don’t want the other party to be able to win elections. That’s what you are seeing here. Even when it’s a large question of civil rights—and women’s suffrage is a civil rights issue, civil rights and  justice and freedom and democracy—even with these large, wonderfully evocative words, it really comes down to whether it’s good for the Democrats or the Republicans.”

What Weiss hopes that women learn from the book is their value at the ballot box. “I have no patience with anyone who says, ‘my vote doesn’t count,’ It definitely does count,” she says. “We see elections being decided by one vote.”

The excuse, “I don’t feel an attachment to either of the candidates,” isn’t acceptable either, she says.  “Do your research and choose one. Understand what their positions are. You are not choosing a friend, you are choosing your representative.”

“We take care in what we eat, we take care in how we look, and in how our friends are, but these are really secondary considerations to what our world is going to be like, our country is going to be like, our city or town going to be like. Paying attention to that is a privilege and a responsibility.”

 “It is incumbent upon all young people, both women and men, but women more especially right now, to pay attention, to realize that it matters what their state legislature or their city council is doing because it affects them, to look at what’s happening in Congress and the White House and realize it affects them. It’s not something remote. If you care about anything, you should care about this. It will affect you, your family, your children, your world.”