The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss, Viking, US $28.00, Pp 416, March 2018, ISBN 978-0525429722
The intensity of the battle for woman suffrage in Nashville, the strength and nature of the suffrage opposition led by women, the racial dimension of the conflict, and the uncertainty of the outcome may seem surprising to us now, even shocking. The struggle for woman suffrage was a long and bitter fight. In The Woman’s Hour, Elaine Weiss tells the story how women won the right to vote and take part in politics in the United States. It’s too easy to imagine that the enfranchisement of American women simply arrived, like some evolutionary imperative, a natural step in the gradual march of progress or, as a gift eventually bestowed by wise men on their grateful wives, daughters, and sisters. Elaine Weiss says that this is not how it happened.
By August 1920, thirty-five states had ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. Twelve states had rejected it or refused to vote. The remaining one state, Tennessee, was going to vote soon to decide the outcome of the seven-decade-long struggle. Among the opponents of the Nineteenth Amendment were the “Antis” – the women who opposed their own enfranchisement, fearing suffrage would bring about the moral collapse of the nation. At this stage, several remarkable women took over the leadership of the “Suffs” and swung the Tennessee vote in favor of the Nineteenth Amendment. They included Carrie Catt, the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and Sue White, a young activist for the National Woman’s Party, known as the “militant wing” of the suffrage movement. They were opposed by equally remarkable women such as Josephine Pearson, president of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to woman suffrage.
The Woman’s Hour is the story of that battle to secure the final state needed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, giving women the most fundamental right of democracy – the vote. Elaine Weiss says that the “Suffs” had reason to worry, as the amendment had already been rejected by nearly all the southern states, for the same blatantly racist reasons as put forth by Tennessee: If women got the vote, black women would also be entitled to the ballot. The presidential candidates were playing their own games, using women suffrage as a pawn. This was the moment of reckoning, and both sides were willing to use every possible weapon to prevail.
Elaine Weiss says that over the course of next six weeks, the three campaign commanders were joined by more than a thousand women and men from around the state and across the country – Suffs, Antis, governors and senators, political operatives, corporate lobbyists, and beleaguered legislators – all pouring into Nashville to enter the fray. The conflict quickly devolved into a vicious faceoff, brimming with dirty tricks and cutting betrayals, sexist rancor, racial bigotry, booze, and the Bible, with the ghosts of the Civil War hovering over the proceedings and jitters lingering from the Great War amplifying the tension. The outcome remained in doubt until the last moment.
Elaine Weiss says that the idea that women should have the right to participate in a government “by and for the people” was long considered radical, even dangerous, in the United States. Elaine Weiss writes that this American story is inevitably about race. The struggle for woman suffrage was one of the defining civil rights movements in the history of our country, and its organizing strategies, lobbying techniques, and non-violent protest actions became the model for the civil rights campaigns to follow in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Elaine Weiss says that the struggle for woman suffrage’s compelling themes – power and political will, race and gender equality, states’ rights and voting rights, and corporate influence in politics – remain urgent, present-day concerns.
In The Woman’s Hour, Elaine Weiss gives a succinct historical background of women’s struggle that before had gone unarticulated and unrecognized to win the right to vote and take part in politics. It pierces the fog of misogyny and racism that has held sway since the beginning of the US history. It is an important and compelling history of women’s struggle for equality. Simply put, it is an antidote to mansplaining. Elaine Weiss’s credentials as a historian are unmatchable.