The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848–1898 by Lisa Tetrault (review)
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The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848–1898. By Lisa Tetrault. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. Pp. 278. $34.95 cloth)

As a former employee at the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House, I recognize the power of mythmaking in women’s suffrage history. Lisa Tetrault’s work builds upon a new history genre that seeks to expose the manipulations of memory presently accepted as fact. Today, many begin the story of women’s political agitation with the 1848 woman’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. This origin myth was created over the course of many years by the now-iconic Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Although the 1848 convention was an important historical event, was it truly the starting point for organized agitation? Identifying several points of origin for the women’s rights movement, Tetrault shows the evolution that named Seneca Falls as the genesis moment. She examines the craft of memory-making before and after the Civil War, exposing the racism of those in the movement, which is known to historians but perhaps not obvious to the greater public.

The immediate years after the Civil War were crucial. Not only could women’s rights leaders not agree on strategy, but they also “whitewashed” the central role of abolition, remaking the Civil War into a struggle in which women pushed for their own emancipation. The grand effort to define their movement, and to maintain their preeminence in the movement, Tetrault writes, led Anthony, Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage to write the first three volumes of History of Woman Suffrage, which repeated the now well-versed myth of the origins of the women’s suffrage movement. Anthony’s autobiography perpetuated the tale, which also virtually eliminated the opposing branch of the suffrage movement led by Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Blackwell. Lucretia Mott became a distant treasure of the early movement but was not allowed a three-dimensional existence in the history. Women of color were often left out as well, despite active participation by Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells Barnett, Frances Ellen [End Page 762] Watkins Harper, and others.

Stone and others protested this singular view of the women’s suffrage movement history but did not realize the extent to which the written works of the counter-camp could sway history itself. Anthony and Stanton, Tetrault writes, became agile politicians, orchestrating memory to suit their goals. Tetrault also examines the generational shifts and grassroots crusades that threatened to tear apart the delicate cohesiveness of the national movements. After the deaths of Stone, Gage, Anthony, Stanton, and others of the old guard, a new wing of suffragists, organized under Alice Paul, proclaimed they were the descendants of the early suffragists.

“Remembering was a fiercely contentious process,” Tetrault writes, as she documents the long struggle of women’s rights reformers (p. 2). Every sociopolitical movement is messy. Groups quarrel about who represents the true voice of the movement. History is complicated and should be. Why should the past represent a simpler time? Perhaps a linear story is comforting, but the danger is that it does not always represent the truth. She reminds us that we need to read any biography or history with a critical eye. Getting at the truth is tricky because the truth is different for each person who examines an historical topic.

Tetrault devoted an incredible amount of research to this work, consulting archival collections of the movement’s leaders, state and grassroots workers, published works, suffrage newspapers, conference programs, and correspondence. She lists an extensive bibliography, yet questions remain. Did she seek any materials from the Susan B. Anthony House? Did she notice the significance of the placement of Frances Wright’s portrait at the beginning of the History of Woman Suffrage, volume one, alluding to pre-1848 suffrage pioneers? Did the woman’s rights conference at Seneca Falls in 1848 create a template for the conventions to come, including the 1850 “national” woman’s rights convention? Tetrault’s work makes us question why there is a need for a true beginning point in women’s fight...