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Journal of Women's History 11.1 (1999) 219-228
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Bigger than a Ballot Box
Joanne L. Goodwin
Sara Hunter Graham. Woman Suffrage and the New Democracy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. 256 pp. ISBN 0-300-06346-6 (cl).
Anne Meis Knupfer. Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood: African-American Women's Clubs in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 222 pp. ISBN 0-8147-4671-3 (cl); 0-8147-4691-8 (pb).
Carol Cornwall Madsen, ed. Battle for the Ballot: Essays on Woman Suffrage in Utah, 1870-1896. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1997. 332 pp. ISBN 0-87421-222-7 (cl); ISBN 0-87421-223-5 (pb).
Suzanne M. Marilley. Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States, 1820-1920. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996. 294 pp. ISBN 0-674-95465-3 (cl).
The relationship between the histories of woman suffrage and U.S. politics suffered from a reluctance on the part of both fields to include the other until recently. Political historians refrained from in-depth discussions of the eighty-year movement to gain the vote for women until the new political history expanded the definition of political actors and activities. Women's historians (with a few notable exceptions) discussed the suffrage movement as a type of voluntarist reform activity, rather than contextualizing it within political institutions and systems. Ellen Carol DuBois's study of suffrage through the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments departed significantly from earlier research by placing suffrage squarely within nineteenth-century politics. A few years later, Paula Baker's article on the "domestication of politics" provided an interpretative framework that located women and men as actors within respective gendered political cultures. 1 The four books reviewed here illustrate the value of this expanded definition of politics. Each work goes beyond narrative description to explore the ways in which organized women engaged in the political life of their communities. Three specifically focus on suffrage, while the fourth places the vote within a broader context of African-American social politics. All four books provide new perspectives that enable scholars to address questions central to the histories of both politics and women. For instance, how the achievement of women's right to vote reshaped U.S. politics; or what correlation might exist between [End Page 219] the expansion of citizenship rights and a decline in voter participation. Studies of voting rights campaigns can explore far more than patterns of voting behavior because they reveal the cultural and political dimensions of American life.
Suzanne M. Marilley revises several standards of suffrage historiography in a study that could reignite debates on the topic. Scholars have looked at half of the suffrage picture with their studies of women's voting patterns, involvement in party auxiliaries, and initiatives for social policy. In addition to these proactive means, Marilley argues, we need to examine the movement's strategies to overcome resistance to the woman's vote. She contends that the liberal ideal of individual rights appeared in three arguments over the eighty years of the suffrage campaign: freedom through equality, the right to a life free from fear of violence, and the freedom to develop one's individual talents through equal opportunities. Early works on suffrage set up "false dichotomies" by defining and separating arguments for justice and expediency. However, these two arguments were not unique to the suffrage movement and little separates the two in the world of practical politics. Marilley agrees that a change took place when the positive right grounded in liberal individualism became compromised and changed during the political process as liberal suffragists used "illiberal" means to achieve their goals. 2
The first rights argument appeared within the abolitionist movement and the 1848 Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention. Both groups used natural rights arguments as the basis for universal suffrage claims. Such writers as Maria Stewart, Lucretia Mott, and Sarah Grimke and Angelina Grimke drew from scripture as well as the Declaration of Independence to strengthen their cause. The...