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Transforming Women, Transforming Politics: The U.S. Woman Suffrage Movement

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 26, Number 2, June 1998
pp. 390-394 | 10.1353/rah.1998.0027

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Reviews in American History 26.2 (1998) 390-394

Kristi Andersen. After Suffrage: Women in Partisan and Electoral Politics Before the New Deal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. viii + 191 pp. Illustrations, tables, notes, bibliography, and index. $38.00 (cloth); $13.95 (paper).

Sara Hunter Graham. Woman Suffrage and the New Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. xviii + 234 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $27.50.

Suzanne M. Marilley. Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States, 1820-1920. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997. xi + 281 pp. Notes, illustrations, chart, table, and index. $39.95.

Until recently historians have not treated the U.S. woman suffrage movement very kindly. After Eleanor Flexner published her groundbreaking, comprehensive study in 1959, scholars either heaped criticism on the movement or else they deemed it unworthy of historical scrutiny. Historians lamented that women failed to use the vote for feminist purposes; they argued that women exercised as much -- or more -- influence through voluntarism and a separate political culture before the Nineteenth Amendment as they did after its passage; and they decried the racism, nativism, and elitism displayed by leaders and members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) as they struggled to obtain the vote.

There were exceptions to this tendency. Ellen DuBois's Feminism and Suffrage (1978), while not uncritical of suffrage leaders, asserted the monumental significance of the emergence of the independent women's rights movement in the 1860s. A handful of scholars began to examine suffrage on the state level, and several activists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul, found their -- mostly celebratory -- biographers. These works too, along with Nancy Cott's The Grounding of Modern Feminism (1987), claimed the importance of suffrage in women's and U.S. history. Yet, what is most striking about suffrage historiography is the scant amount of attention the movement drew in the profusion of scholarship on women in the 1970s and 1980s.

Happily, these three books join a growing body of work that moves the study of the woman suffrage movement in new directions. None of these authors is blind to the movement's flaws and limitations, and they pay particular attention to its exclusionary and undemocratic elements. All demonstrate the significance of woman suffrage, shed light on why it took so long, explain how women accomplished it, and survey the political condition of women after the Nineteenth Amendment. Much more than most previous scholars, they investigate the relationships between suffrage, partisan politics, and political institutions and demonstrate how the movement shaped the political system in ways hitherto unacknowledged. And they are notable for stressing the tremendous obstacles that the suffrage movement had to overcome. That two of these authors are political scientists and one a historian illustrates the increasing attraction of suffrage to feminist scholars in the social sciences as well as the benefits of multidisciplinary approaches.

Trained as a political scientist, Suzanne M. Marilley sets Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the context of political ideologies and organizes the book around three categories of arguments used by suffragists. Each of these predominated at a different time, and they were structured to a considerable degree in terms of opponents' arguments and the current obstacles faced by the movement. According to Marilley, a feminism of equal rights, which derived substantially from William Lloyd Garrison's need to mobilize women for the abolitionist crusade, characterized women's rights from the 1830s to the 1870s. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, a feminism of fear, promoted most vigorously by Frances Willard and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, served as a rallying ideology, one that presented the vote as the means to guarantee women's physical security. Finally, in the last decades of the suffrage struggle, leaders stressed a feminism of personal development. Marilley does not define precisely nor distinguish sufficiently this theme from a feminism of equal rights, but what she seems to suggest is an ideology to accommodate an increasing diversification of the movement. From the 1890s on, activists stressed the importance of the vote for women to develop their own individual interests; these would vary among distinct...

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