Woman Suffrage’s Long March

 

Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists

By Jean H. Baker

New York: Hill and Wang, 2005, 277 pages, $25.00, hardcover

 

 

Untidy Origins: A Story of Woman’s Rights in Antebellum New York

By Lori D. Ginzberg

Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005, 222 pp., $19.95, paperback

 

 

Reviewed by Vivian Gornick

 

 

For American feminists, the story of the seventy-year struggle for woman suffrage in the United States is a founding myth. Some of us can never get enough of it.  No matter how many times the same ground is covered, we lovingly absorb yet another rehearsal of the significant names, dates, and events that by now many of us can recite in our sleep. We find thrilling the tale of political complications surrounding each and every strategic development—advance, retreat,  re-group—on the Long March toward the right of American women simply to vote.

It begins in the 1830s and 1840s, a time in America of astonishing public-spiritedness, made up equally of cocky self-belief and raging self-criticism. Americans were still feeling giddy over the success of the Revolution, and wonderfully reinforced by a surge of influence coming from abroad—all that democratic uprising, all that German Romanticism—upon which Emerson was building a life’s work of belief in individuation; on the other hand,  there was slavery, undreamt-of  capitalist rapacity, and the despair of working-class alcoholism. So, looking one way at American life you had

Transcendentalism and the thrilling promise of  “self-union”; looking another, you had a mounting fury over broken republican promises and a pressing call for abolition, temperance, and universal education. Either way, the internal stir in the country was acutely felt.  Given such an atmosphere, it seems, in historical hindsight, inevitable that there would have been an uprising of the women.

Among intelligent women of every class the conversation about women’s lives had been going on for years, and at almost every level of intellectual engagement, ranging in tone and depth from the high-minded to the respectably minded: that is, from Margaret Fuller to Little Women. Yet the inner life of these very same women was saturated in the rhetoric of Christian obligation, and psychologically hemmed in by a penetrating belief in woman’s natural identity as wife and mother. To break free of such deeply internalized concepts was no easy task.  While a woman might support the idea of education for girls, or even the more radical one of a married woman’s right to control her own property, it was almost impossible to find the sentences that would allow her to frame the thoughts that would help her step away from the welcome activism of piecemeal reform into a philosophically inclusive view of how the life of a person who is a woman is formed and shaped by the culture. But slowly, slowly, that is exactly what was happening.

The reform movements had welcomed women into their ranks and, by the late 1840s, thousands were enrolled in the organizational work of temperance or abolition. This time-bound development—the passion for reform—proved crucial to the awakening of great numbers of women to their own situation. The abolitionist movement, in particular, was of key importance as, except for Margaret Fuller, it was out of the ranks of those committed to the Great Cause that every major radical feminist of the 19th century emerged.  The movement did for the women what, until the moment of awakening, they could not do for themselves: it educated them to political work, made organizers of them, taught them how to frame an argument, debate the question, hold an audience. Then, after it had educated them, it let them see clearly where they stood, in the eyes of their comrades, on the large landscape of universal human rights: distinctly in the second if not the third rank of consideration. 

The nation was little more than a half century old when the first meeting was held at which the radical argument  of woman-as-citizen was advanced, and the demand for  suffrage made.  The meeting, of course, was the one held in Seneca Falls,  New York in July of 1848. The location was chosen because it was the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton who, along with her mentor, Lucretia Mott, and a few of their friends (all experienced abolition workers), was the moving force behind the call to protest the discrepancy between the declared intention of the republic to make citizens of Americans, and the reality under which all women and many men in the United States lived.  Without suffrage the word  “citizenship”  was deprived of meaning—and suffrage had been extended neither to blacks nor white men without property, and certainly not to women.

The meeting at Seneca Falls kindled a fire waiting to be lit. Almost overnight, the movement for woman suffrage began to burn brightly.  Suddenly, across half the country debates were being held, articles written, meetings attended; and the practice begun of  saturating state legislatures with petitions demanding that a vote be taken on the question of woman suffrage. Then, there were the Conventions themselves. Within weeks of Seneca Falls they began: first, in nearby cities such as Rochester and Philadelphia; then, in the surrounding states (Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island); and in 1850, the First National Women’s Rights Convention was called in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The women’s rights convention of the 1850s was a piece of genius. It was to 19th century feminism what consciousness-raising was to the twentieth. As Susan Conrad puts it in Perish the Thought (her admirable study of intellectual women in 19th century America), the conventions were “a moveable feast, a college and a long conversation.” Just as with consciousness-raising, these meetings allowed women-on-the-verge to see that there was a way, out of their own experience, to make a remarkable amount of political and social sense of how the world had come to organize itself. Once a woman’s experience had been established as a legitimate base from which to start an intellectual journey, she found herself digging purposefully into history, religion, literature, and moral philosophy, in order that she might better argue the evidence of her senses. In no time at all, the range of subjects and speakers at these conventions expanded to include speculations that only yesterday might have been dismissed as peripheral to the question of women’s rights, but with each meeting were more willingly entertained as central to an ever-expanding view of the enterprise. Had it not been for the conventions, many of the women who became crucial to the movement would never have known not only that they could think, but that there were many like themselves out there who could also think. Within five years of Seneca Falls, at an extraordinary number of national, state, and city meetings, American women everywhere discovered that there was intellection among themselves.  

From the start,  there were those who exhibited large talents of various sorts; some proved extraordinary organizers and thinkers, others electrifying public speakers. At the same time, in countless towns, villages, and rural areas there were those who responded to the stir of change by challenging their familiars,  petitioning their legislators,  feeding and housing  activists of reputation out on the road.

Who were they, these women both famous and obscure who resonated so brilliantly to the Cause, and who replaced one another generation after generation for the more than seventy years it took to win the vote?  In one sense, they are individually vital, in another thrillingly generic. The English novelist Jean Rhys once spoke of literature as a great lake that was fed by streams, brooks, rivers—that is, writers, large and small.  A movement for social change is also an outpouring of impassioned urgency that, of necessity, is fed by the contributions of the major, the minor, and the marginal—activists, sympathizers, fellow travelers. In one sense, perhaps none are important individually; but in another,  perhaps all are.  The two books under review call our attention to this very conundrum.

Sisters: The Lives of America’s  Suffragists  is a composite biography of five famous suffragists: Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, and Alice Paul. It was written,  historian Jean Baker tells us, because she believes “that one reason we so often overlook the suffrage crusade…is that we have no sense of its leaders’ personalities and temperaments.” We do not  readily see that these famous names belonged to people who suffered illness, infidelity, and financial reversals,  “were pelted by eggs during their speeches,” and struggled endlessly to balance the responsibilities of family life against the  passion for political activism.

Untidy Origins: A Story of Woman’s Rights in Antebellum New York,  in contrast, was written because  on a Saturday morning in August, 1846  (exactly two years before Seneca Falls), there was presented to the New York state constitutional convention a petition asserting  “that the present government of this state has widely departed from the true democratic principles upon which all just governments must be based by denying the female portion of community the right of suffrage and any participation in forming the government and laws under which they live.”  The petition had been written by six local women, all middle-aged farm wives. For historian Lori Ginzberg, it is precisely their obscurity that is  the compelling factor:  “The notion of kitchen-table conversation haunts me when I imagine [the six women] working on their petition. Who first mentioned it?  Who put pen to paper? Which of their husbands and brothers objected to or supported or laughed at or dismissed their effort? What did their fathers and mothers think, and what about the sisters and daughters who did not sign?” The book Ginzberg has written is designed to account historically for the moment of gathering urgency that led to the writing of the petition.

Each of these books is, in its own way, an admirable introduction to the drama of the woman suffrage movement, rich in its evocation of the time and place in which the various protagonists lived; at the same time,  neither is able to accomplish its stated aim —that is,  make us feel  the lives of the women under discussion. In the case of the famous suffragists, it would be almost impossible to get inside any one of them, as none committed to paper any record of their feeling lives outside of the unflagging devotion to the Cause. Neither diaries nor letters nor memoirs reveal the kind of inner disturbance, divided motivation, or inappropriate emotion on which biography depends. So, while we are told that Lucy Stone’s husband was unfaithful and that Frances Willard was an open lesbian and Alice Paul devoid of an inner life, nothing we learn explains why these women became the force in suffrage that each and every one of them was. The closest we come is a sentence taken from the writings of Frances Willard: “I never knew what it was not to aspire, and not to believe myself capable of heroism. I always wanted to react upon the world about me to my utmost ounce of power, to be widely known and loved and believed in—the more widely the better.”  Now, there’s something to organize a history around: healthy narcissism spurred on by remarkable self-confidence, and directed, obsessively and for a lifetime,  at the never dying outrage of exclusion. This obviously was true for all of them…

As for the six farm wives from Jefferson County in upstate New York,  they  remain anonymous. Years spent in archives and halls of records tracing the recorded existence of all six are not enough to make any of them come to individual life. What Ginzberg delivers up instead is a picture of the time and place in which they lived so wonderfully complicated that we do, indeed, see why the writing of the petition  two years before Seneca Falls can be considered an emblematic act. With all the complications of class interests,  economic distress, and cemented social prejudices that prevailed in the typical American farming community of 1846,  the petition is a quite marvelous sign of the times;  a proof of how seriously Americans—then as now—would come to take the idea of citizenship, and how keenly women—then as now—have been made to feel their exclusion from its practice.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the story of suffrage is a founding myth: we can’t  get enough of it.

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