- Suffrage on the Frontier: How Arizona and Maine Women Pushed for Full Citizenship
In her 2009 work, Winning Their Place: Arizona Women in Politics, 1883‒1950, Heidi J. Osselaer transcends feminist wave history, recognizing that women’s sociopolitical work spans multiple generations and defies tidy categories of time. Suffrage historians acknowledge that focusing on the supposed demarcation line of 1920 and the Nineteenth Amendment leads to rather simplistic views of women’s suffrage and women’s rights movements. Women voted before 1920 in quite a few U.S. states as well as countries and territories around the world. After 1920, more white women had access to the vote in the United States, but there were still challenges due to property-based suffrage laws in some states, as well as poll taxes, literacy tests, citizen status (when addressing the rights of Native Americans), and outright threats and violence toward people of color. Osselaer tackles the conflicting myths that the Nineteenth Amendment made women equal before the law or the idea that the Nineteenth Amendment failed to significantly improve the lives of [End Page 209] women and girls. If the Nineteenth Amendment did, in fact, make female Americans equal to men, then any lack of access to equality could be blamed on women’s own supposed faults: presumably, their physical and mental weakness, their inability to grasp the complexities of politics, or because their true role should be solely as mothers and housewives. If the Nineteenth Amendment failed to bring about a parity between men and women, it might be argued that women did not really need the vote to affect change after all.
Osselaer targets these myths that have permeated American society well into our own era, painstakingly detailing the ways that Arizona women became politically savvy and created change even without the vote, all the while navigating the often-unforgiving desert and mountainous terrain. Beyond the usual obstacles, when Arizona leaders sought statehood in 1909, they felt that putting women’s suffrage in the proposed state constitution would stymie congressional approval. This was also evident in the national suffrage fight for a proposed Nineteenth Amendment. Suffragists were often told that the time was not right. So, while the women were not immediately successful in getting women’s enfranchisement approved by male legislators, they were still successful in other endeavors.1 In short, the proposed Nineteenth Amendment was but one tool for women to better their lives and those of children. Also important were the ways that women built a role in the two mainstream political parties and challenger third parties, earned places in state administrations, and finally emerged by the 1990s in top state political offices in Arizona. While the women certainly did not agree with each other on the long path to suffrage and beyond, they often pushed for what male politicians had labeled “women’s issues,” which have proven in the historical rearview mirror to be “peoples’ issues”—beneficial to all Arizonans, including children and the have-nots of society. For example, campaigning for widow’s aid or a women’s minimum wage benefitted all who shared a woman’s household.
In this way, Osselaer’s work corresponds well with my studies of Maine women who pushed for political space and legitimacy. Our work has demonstrated that women in rural, frequently impoverished, yet resource-rich places had agency—indeed, demanded agency—in the construction of their sociopolitical world. While [End Page 210] national and international suffrage leaders are now better represented in history textbooks, suffrage historians understand the movement happened both in urban and rural spaces, via an intricate network of local, regional, state, and national suffragists, many of them unsung, and that those in the rural movements were not isolated. They used every mode of technology available (telegraph, the U.S. postal system, trains, automobiles, telephones, radio, art, investigative journalism, advanced printing, philanthropy, and mass marketing) to insert their voices into an unwelcoming political dialogue.2 While Anglo women who homesteaded on the periphery of American society brought Puritan-based, middle-class assumptions with them, they also had to be resourceful. Homesteaders had a special relationship to the land, and instead of...