With our exciting centenary women’s suffrage anniversary of August 2020 in mind, a Leadership Team member has suggested the following book title: The Woman’s Hour by Elaine Weiss. The following book review by Curtis Sittenfield appeared in the New York Times April 18, 2018. After Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919, ratification needed to occur in 36 states for women’s right to vote to become federal law. By July 1920, the possible 36th state — or the place where the amendment would die after 70 years of strenuous activism — was Tennessee. Thus, for several weeks that summer, in and around Nashville’s statehouse, a frenetic pageant of political organizing, lobbying, demonstrating and double-crossing unfolded among the “Antis,” who opposed the amendment, and the “Suffs,” or suffragists, who supported it. As one legislator declared, “The entire world today has cast its eyes on Tennessee.”
Weiss presents a panoramic view of the proceedings, which are alternately juicy (accusations of libel and bribery abounded, and, in spite of Prohibition, the whiskey and bourbon were free-flowing) and procedural. Weiss also provides national and international context: World War I had ended less than two years earlier, and both the war and its aftermath had jumbled established norms of gender, race and employment. In the United States, a physically ailing Woodrow Wilson occupied the White House, and two Ohioans, Warren Harding and James Cox, were vying to replace him, which raised the stakes of the 19th Amendment’s passage: Though women in some states could already vote, it was unclear how enfranchising all 27 million American women in time for the fall’s presidential election would influence national politics.
In addition to offering contemporaneous perspective, Weiss goes back several decades to the roots of the women’s movement and the efforts of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others. Weiss celebrates their persistence and courage but does not sugarcoat their racism. Despite early unity with abolitionists, upper-middle-class white women willing to sacrifice racial equality for gender equality is nothing new. During the ratification in Nashville, Carrie Catt, the New York-based president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the successor to Susan B. Anthony, made calculated decisions to distance her groups’ interests from those of black men and women. After all, much of the Anti reluctance to grant women the vote was tied up with not wanting black women to vote. Weiss details the tribalism within the women’s movement as personified by Catt and the more militant and provocative Alice Paul, who led the National Woman’s Party. Though Paul was short on money and didn’t travel to Nashville for the special session, she dispatched the native Tennessean Sue Shelton White, an activist who could, with her very accent, dispel accusations about meddling outsiders.
Weiss depicts another native daughter of Tennessee, this one a committed Anti: Josephine Pearson. She presided over multiple Anti groups and believed that in fighting against ratification, she was obeying both God and her deceased mother. Weiss is a clear and genial guide with an ear for telling language (“I’d rather see my daughter in a coffin than at the polls,” declares one Anti, while a newspaper headline about a pretty, young Suff reads, “110 Pounds of Femininity to Hit Legislators for Vote”).
She also shows a superb sense of detail, and it’s the deliciousness of her details that suggests certain individuals warrant entire novels of their own. For example, Annie Nathan Meyer and Maud Nathan, New York sisters, were respectively an Anti and a Suff, who didn’t speak to each other except when “clashing publicly.” Luke Lea, the swaggering publisher of a Nashville newspaper, a onetime senator and a member of the Men’s Ratification Committee, had concocted a plan to kidnap Kaiser Wilhelm after the armistice. He abandoned the kidnapping attempt, returned to Nashville and married his dead wife’s sister. Or how about Louisine Havemeyer, a grandmother who lived in a Fifth Avenue mansion in New York and used her fortune, acquired via her sugar magnate husband, to support Suff radicals and who once found herself, by design, in jail? (While participating in an effigy burning of President Wilson outside the White House, Havemeyer said she felt “as placid and calm as if I were going out to play croquet on a summer afternoon.”)
These are just a sampling of the many characters Weiss introduces. Because of the number of major players, it can become hard to remember who is who. There’s also a somewhat awkward structure to the book in that almost everything before Page 219 is back-story, and in places, the back-story has a back-story. Routinely, a person is depicted in a specific moment — the governor of Tennessee is donning a jacket, say — then there are several pages of history before rejoining the governor, who is still donning his jacket. But storytelling, like democracy, is sometimes messy, and Weiss’s thoroughness is one of the book’s great strengths. So vividly had she depicted events that by the climactic vote (spoiler alert: The amendment was ratified!), I got goose bumps. I’m almost certain that the name Hillary Rodham Clinton appears only once, in the last few pages. Yet it is, of course, impossible to read The Woman’s Hour without thinking of the 2016 presidential election, of the symbolic and literal impact of Clinton’s candidacy, the consequences of her loss, the way she was and still is portrayed in the news media. Clinton’s decision to wear the Suffs’ color of white for the most important events of her campaign (and to Donald Trump’s inauguration) suggests that she perceives herself as part of an ongoing legacy.
The Woman’s Hour offers several timely reminders: of how history-altering legislation comes about after much nitty-gritty, unglamorous fieldwork; of how tenuous the progress toward true equality under the law really is; of how social and legal changes that in retrospect seem inevitable were hardly considered such at the time (indeed, even after the 19th Amendment passed, its ratification was contested repeatedly). And yet, if nothing can be taken for granted and change rarely comes without a fight, there remains reason for optimism. “Everything the Cause had accomplished — every state won, every piece of legislation, every change of heart and shift in policy — was once considered utterly impossible,” Weiss writes. “Until it wasn’t.”