“Suffragist City”

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That’s the title of a column by academic historian Mary Beth Norton that appeared in The Nation, describing new books about important women in history. Norton writes:

… Groundbreaking books by historians Judith Wellman, Lori Ginzburg and Jean Baker, among others, have appeared in the past few years, and more are in the publication pipeline. Wellman and Ginzburg uncovered important new information about women’s rights activity in upstate New York in the years before 1848, and Baker produced an elegantly written, well-received joint biography of five suffragist leaders. …

… Sally McMillen and Allison Sneider draw extensively on the Stanton and Anthony papers in their new books (Sneider worked for a year in the Stanton-Anthony editorial office). Although steeped in primary-source materials, McMillen’s Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement is clearly aimed at a popular or student audience and essentially reworks ground familiar to many historians. Sneider’s Suffragists in an Imperial Age: U.S. Expansion and the Woman Question, 1870-1929 examines a novel topic: the links between the suffrage movement and American expansionist thinking. McMillen’s two previous books focused on the antebellum social history of Southern women. Her rambling, poorly organized introductory chapters reveal that she is less familiar than she should be with current historical scholarship on colonial America, the North and early American political and legal history in general. (Indeed, she reveals that this book grew from a casual conversation with James McPherson of Princeton University, editor of the Pivotal Moments in American History series–of which this book is a part–rather than her own scholarly interests.) But she hits her stride when the narrative reaches the 1830s, ably describing the women who served as lecturers in the antislavery movement and demonstrating how negative public reactions to them as women led them to begin to advocate for women’s rights.

McMillen builds her narrative around four prominent leaders of the women’s rights movement: Lucretia Coffin Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony. She also devotes considerable attention to other activists of the day, such as Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Abby Kelley Foster, Amelia Jenks Bloomer, Antoinette Brown Blackwell and Victoria Woodhull, along with some of their most prominent male allies (for example, Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips). Readers learn more interesting details about the personal traits and experiences of the participants in the story than they would have if McMillen had chosen to emphasize institutional development; but at times the narrative deteriorates into scattered updates on the health and circumstances of her primary subjects, requiring an awkward organizational method that might best be characterized as “meanwhile, back at the ranch. . . .” Occasionally, the stress on personalities leads her to present the disagreements among the movement’s leaders, which were especially pronounced later in the century, as driven largely by petty jealousies, whereas they had originated in serious tactical and strategic disagreements that she inadequately acknowledges. …

… Although McMillen clearly sympathizes with her protagonists and applauds their efforts, she is also honest about their shortcomings. The white, relatively privileged activists, she notes, proposed such reforms as access to better education and professional careers, which meant little to ordinary American women; no wonder, then, that most women responded with indifference, if not hostility, to the activists’ message. McMillen accurately pronounces some of Stanton’s speeches “unquestionably racist and xenophobic” in their complaints that ignorant black and immigrant men had been enfranchised while well-educated white women still lacked the vote. Admitting the “discomfort” Stanton’s words cause the contemporary reader, McMillen offers as a partial excuse the fact that at the time such statements “were commonplace not only for someone of her background and education but also among a broad spectrum of society.” She closes the final chapter on an upbeat note, quoting Stanton at the 1890 convention calling for the enfranchisement of “colored women, Indian women” and “Infidels,” among others.

Yet that positive impression is deceptive, as we learn from Allison Sneider, who details the increasingly vocal racism of the women’s rights movement that developed not only in response to the question of the enfranchisement of black and immigrant men in the United States but also in relation to the acquisition and governance of new imperial territories. Deliberately abandoning the biographical and institutional approach adopted by McMillen and others, Sneider has written an innovative study of the intersections of suffrage and expansionism.

Building her slim volume around episodes of expansion that placed suffrage squarely on the national agenda, Sneider explores the ways women’s rights advocates and other American political leaders came to terms with the implications of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, which for the first time created a national definition of citizenship. …

These excerpts are intended to offer an overview but they seem disjointed even to me, and I read the the whole thing! So, you should too.

–Ann Bartow

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