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'The Woman's Hour' Documents Pivotal Leaders In The Fight For Suffrage

Mar 11, 2018
Originally published on March 15, 2018 3:19 pm
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Finally today, you might have noticed or even participated in some events to observe International Women's Day last Thursday. In fact, the month of March has been designated as a time to acknowledge the contributions and struggles of women in this country and around the world, which is why this is a perfect time to tell you about a new book that details a pivotal battle in the long, long campaign to win the right to vote for women in the U.S. The book is called "The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight To Win The Vote." It's about the summer of 1920, when forces for and against women's suffrage converged on the city of Nashville, Tenn. Elaine Weiss wrote that book, and she's with us now in our studios in Washington, D.C. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ELAINE WEISS: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So why the summer of 1920 and why Nashville? Why was this such a pivotal time and place?

WEISS: Well, in the summer of 1920, the 19th Amendment, which guarantees the right to vote for all women in every state in every election, is on the cusp of ratification. Thirty-five states have ratified it, and they need just one more to ratify. It will become the law of the land. But it lands in the lap of Tennessee because all the other Southern states have rejected it at this point. There are a few Northern states that are refusing to consider it. And so Tennessee becomes the last hope for the suffragists, and they've been battling for this for 70 years.

MARTIN: You start the book by introducing three main characters - Carrie Catt, Josephine Pearson and Sue White - all speeding to Nashville in an attempt to influence this vote. As briefly as you can, could you just tell us about each one of these important leaders?

WEISS: Absolutely. Carrie Chapman Catt is the leader of the mainstream suffragists. The National American Women's Suffrage Association claims 2 million members. She is the suffrage leader in America. She trained under Susan B. Anthony. Anthony chose her to lead the movement into the 20th century. And so she's a very important figure.

MARTIN: What about Sue White?

WEISS: Sue White is very interesting. She represents the new, younger generation of suffragists. Suffragists have been battling for three generations at this point, and she represents the third - the young, impatient suffragist who's tired of pleading and asking for the vote. She's going to demand it. And so she actually leaves the mainstream - Carrie Catt's party - and moves to the more radical National Woman's Party. And she comes back to Tennessee to face not only the opposition of her state but also the stares of the other suffrage women who she broke away from. So there's a lot of psychological tension going on there. And then Josephine Pearson is the leader of the women's anti-suffrage organization in Tennessee. She represents those women, and it's a sizable chunk of women who actually oppose their sister's enfranchisement. This was really shocking to me.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask you about that. There are a number of things in this book that I think might be surprising to a lot of people, but one of them is just how many women led the anti-suffrage movement. And also, it's, I think, I would say, fair to say, surprising how many prominent men supported women's suffrage. But let's talk about Josephine Pearson. Why - and was she emblematic of the opposition? Like, why did these women not want to vote?

WEISS: Yes, she is emblematic in that she represents that strain of the anti-suffrage movement, the religiously conservative, culturally conservative, socially conservative women who believe that women's right to vote, demanding political power is not only going to upset the political status quo but also her role in society and her role in the home. They really believe that women's suffrage, if granted, is going to bring about the moral collapse of the nation. And it's going to upset our national equilibrium.

And in that way, it's not unlike certain conservative social and political issues today. I think what we have to understand is that women's suffrage was not just a political decision. It was a social and cultural and societal decision and a moral decision for some. And so it's almost like this first salvo in what we call the culture wars.

MARTIN: On the other hand, you also talked about - when you talk about the culture wars - just how closely related this was to racism. I mean, the people who were opposing women's suffrage, a lot of it was tied up in racial politics. Could you talk about that?

WEISS: Absolutely. And that was one of the most surprising and perhaps heartbreaking parts of my research that I found. Racism is a prime element in this fight. First of all, the suffrage movement actually is born out of abolitionism. It comes of age at the same time almost as a sibling cause in the middle of the 19th century. The second part is the modern part, which is in 1920. It's blatantly announced that opposition to women voting is partly because if all women can vote, that means black women can vote. And the South has already figured out how to disenfranchise black men, and they don't want to have to deal with women, too.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that we were talking about how kind of a race and gender are pieces intertwined. You know, fast forward six decades to the '60s, when - you know, spoiler alert here - even when the fight was over, it wasn't really over. I mean, one of the really disheartening things that you talk about later in the book is how all the efforts to keep women from voting, particularly to keep black women from voting, and you point out that a number of people were actually killed in this effort to keep women from actually voting, even though this was the law of the of the land. What do you make of that?

WEISS: Well, I think this is a book - I try to tell a great story. It's a rollicking political thriller. I think it will be interesting to anyone who's interested at all about our history or our politics. But it also poses some uncomfortable questions, and those - among those are, what is our national attitude towards democracy? We talk a lot about democracy, but we really do, if we look in the mirror and are honest about it, we have a very conflicted attitude towards true democracy through all citizens being able to vote. And we're still fighting that battle.

MARTIN: What finally turned the tide?

WEISS: I think the persistence of the suffragists. They had to change hearts and minds, and they had slowly, slowly done that. We sort of think that women got the vote by magic. And I have to say, I was one of those people. I have some vague notion there - Seneca Falls. And there's the women wearing hoop skirts. And then there's some picket signs. And then it happens. What they confront in Nashville is the last stand. Everyone knows this is the last stand.

And so all the forces and all the arguments that have been used for 70 years - there are business interests who don't want women to vote because they're afraid women might want to abolish child labor. And the mills depend on that cheap labor. So they don't want women in the polling booth at all. And then the liquor industry is afraid that women might want to enforce the new prohibition laws.

So there's the corporate interests that are opposing them in Nashville. There is the political interest. This is going to be a big unpredictable bloc of voters. Nobody knows how they're going to vote, and the political parties are very nervous about it. They'd rather keep it the way it is.

MARTIN: What do you think is the legacy of this battle and the way it was fought? Is it - what do you think that we, as a kind of a country, learned from this or that activists learned from this?

WEISS: Well, I think activists can look at this story and see some lessons. One of them is that political change is hard, and social change is slow. And it takes persistence to accomplish it. And that's what the suffragists had to go through. And what seemed impossible and ridiculed as impossible slowly becomes inevitable. And so the other thing I think today's activists can take from this lesson is - from this experience is that protest is patriotic. And the suffragists proved that, and it's necessary. But it also has to be joined with political strategy in order to accomplish what you want.

MARTIN: That's Elaine Weiss. She's author of the new book "The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight To Win The Vote." It is out now. And she was kind of to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Elaine Weiss, happy Women's History Month.

WEISS: And to you too, Michel.


MAVIS STAPLES: (Singing) Sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. This ain't...[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: During this interview, our guest misspoke and said that all Southern states had rejected the 19th Amendment by the summer of 1920. In fact, some Southern states, including Arkansas, Kentucky, Texas and West Virginia, had ratified the 19th Amendment at that point.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.