Tags

, ,

A few weeks ago, I posted an excerpt from Charles and Mary Beard’s The Rise of American Civilization on the women’s struggle for suffrage and the passage of the 19th amendment. Below is another version of this same story, offered in the twelfth volume of A History of American Life, a formidable accounting of American history edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger. This volume, The Great Crusade and After, 1914-1928, was written by Preston William Slosson and first appeared in 1930. In the section “Woman Wins Equality,” Slosson writes of female suffrage

The Nineteenth Amendment which extended the political franchise to American women, already emancipated in everything save politics, followed about half a year after the Eighteenth, prohibiting the sale of alcoholic liquors. The twin amendments–twin victories for feminism some would say–had much in common. Both prohibition and woman suffrage had roots deep in American history and represented a final triumph obtained after almost a century of continuous agitation. Both were attempted in many places on a state-wide scale before they forced their way to the front as national issues. Both were first mooted by Puritan reformed in Northeastern states, when actually carried into effect by their radical sons who had moved to the Western plains and mountains, and opposed almost to the last ditch by their conservative grandsons who had stayed in the East. (157)

Several things strike me about this framing of the 19th Amendment. Much like the Beards, Slosson writes of suffrage as the culmination of a century-long struggle of women for “equality,” possibly going even further than the Beards by explicitly describing enfranchisement as the last barrier to women who were “already emancipated in everything save politics.” Pairing the 19th Amendment with Prohibition places women’s suffrage rights in the context of nineteenth-century social reform movements. He is not wrong in making the case that Prohibition was seen, in many circles, as a victory for women generally and feminist activists particularly, since the evils of liquor were often characterized by prohibition activists as adversely affecting women and children by encouraging men to spend wages on drink and neglect their families in favor of the homosocial (largely-male) world of pubs and clubs where alcohol was served.

A few pages later, Slosson goes on to describe how the suffrage campaign was ultimately won, highlighting what he sees as “the almost complete absence of ‘militancy'” in the American campaign as opposed to the British.

In England a fairly large radical wing of the suffrage movement had tried to badger the government of the day into action by such means as broken windows, interrupting public meetings, destroying mailboxes, and other ‘nuisance tactics.’ Nothing so extreme occurred in the United States, the nearest approach to it perhaps being the picketing of the White House with banners denouncing President Wilson (himself already a convert to the cause) for not putting more pressure on Congress . . . Even this very mild form of militancy was frowned upon by the majority of American suffragists, who used no method except political organization and open discussion. Their speedy success seems to have been due in part to the skill of their political managers, in part to the chivalric tradition in American life which made it difficult to refuse any really sustained demand by women . . . and in part as a tribute to the indispensable services of American women during the World War. (160)

It is notable here that Slosson fails to mention that even the “very mild” tactic of picketing the White House led to the imprisonment of a number of suffrage activists, hunger strikes, and force feedings (see for example Doris Stevens’ account Jailed for Freedom). I also think it’s fascinating to see how he opposes militancy with “political organization and open discussion” in a way that not only favors the latter, but also implies that it was more feminine (appealing to the “chivalric tradition in American life”). I think a number of women activists would at the time have taken umbrage at the notion that one hundred years of agitation equaled “speedy success.” Many of the women who were among the first generation of modern women’s rights activists were no longer alive when the 19th Amendment became federal law. For them, the success was far from speedy: it was, in essence, non-existent.

Advertisements