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Journal of Women's History 12.1 (2000) 172-181

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Review Essay

Reclaiming the Political: Women and the Social History of Suffrage in Great Britain, France, and the United States

Laura E. Nym Mayhall

Barbara Green. Spectacular Confessions: Autobiography, Performative Activism, and the Sites of Suffrage, 1905-1938. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. viii + 228 pp.; ill.; no bibliography. ISBN 0-312-7267-2 (cl).

Maroula Joannou and June Purvis, eds. The Women's Suffrage Movement: New Feminist Perspectives. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998. xii + 227 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-7190-4860-5 (cl).

Linda J. Lumsden. Rampant Women: Suffragists and the Right of Assembly. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997. xxxii + 273 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-87049-986-6 (cl).

Clarissa Campbell Orr, ed. Wollstonecraft's Daughters: Womanhood in England and France, 1780-1920. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996. x + 206 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-7190-4241-0 (cl).

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. xii + 192 pp. ISBN 0-253-33378-4 (cl); 0-253-21176-X (pb).

For many historians of women's suffrage, the subject remains rooted in the intellectual and political concerns of social history. This is not surprising, as the development of women's history as a field owes much to new social history. Early works on women's suffrage drew inspiration from social history's emphasis on experiences of ordinary women, a trend alive in the historiography on suffrage to this day. 1 Indeed, much recent work on women's suffrage in Britain, France, and the United States seeks to recover and establish women's agency in their attainment of the vote, and to demonstrate the existence of a separate women's culture among suffragists. Such scholarship continues the vital task of documenting the contributions women made to their political enfranchisement. Yet, it also celebrates women's achievements as part of a progressive, triumphal acquisition of rights. As a consequence, women's suffrage remains resolutely outside overarching scholarly and pedagogical political narratives, a "special case," rather than an integral part of understanding transitions to democracy. [End Page 172]

The authors of the five books under consideration here at once epitomize and transcend social history's treatment of women's suffrage, reinscribing limitations and making new possibilities visible. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and the contributors to Maroula Joannou and June Purvis's edited collection recover African-American and white British women's suffrage activism from what historian E. P. Thompson termed the "enormous condescension of posterity." 2 The authors focus upon suffragists' intentions and relate their stories from the actors' perspectives. Yet they also recover significant dimensions of women's struggle for the vote without substantially addressing the significance of their research to larger political questions. In contrast, Linda J. Lumsden, Barbara Green, and the historians in Clarissa Campbell Orr's edited book simultaneously expand our understanding of women's activism and suggest ways in which women's struggles for enfranchisement might transform master political narratives.

In African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn constructs a narrative of black women's involvement in campaigns for a constitutional amendment enfranchising American women which self-consciously parallels accounts of white women's suffrage activism. Terborg-Penn traces the political work of the first three generations of African-American women suffragists. The first generation, emerging from black women's involvement in the abolitionist movement in the antebellum period, argued for universal suffrage. Maintaining the spirit of inclusion embodied in the demand for universal suffrage, the second generation joined white suffragists in a more circumscribed campaign of 1869 to 1874 to force the U.S. Congress to remove the distinction of sex from the Fourteenth Amendment, which had based congressional representation on the number of "male citizens." The third generation was active from the 1870s to the 1920s. During a period when black women faced opposition and hostility from white suffragists, this generation developed its own...


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