The Woman's Hour

Book Buzz: The Woman’s Hour

The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine F. Weiss

This year is a big one for democracy: Not only is it a presidential election year, it’s the year of the decennial census, which helps apportion congressional voting districts.

It’s also a milestone anniversary for two voting-related Constitutional amendments. The 15th Amendment granting African-American men the right to vote is celebrating its 150th anniversary, and the 19th Amendment, women’s suffrage, is celebrating 100.

Mired as we are in impeachment drama and the political machinations thereof, Elaine Weiss’ extensively researched book The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote reminds us that democracy is messy and tedious and also essential.

She focuses on the battle to secure the passage of the 19th amendment in a 36th state, a requirement necessary for the amendment to be adopted into law. This effort was no cake walk; it called upon suffragists of every stripe, from Carrie Catt of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (the organization founded by Susan B. Anthony) to the more radical Alice Paul and Lucy Burns of the National Women’s Party. 

It also drew opponents—not only men, but also women like Josephine Pearson, leader of the “Antis,” fearful that allowing women to vote and partake in politics would lead to moral collapse. These women and hundreds more converged in Tennessee in 1920, determined to resolve the issue for once and for all.

Weiss marshals the many facts and details into a rich and compelling narrative. Though we know the eventual outcome, each twist and turn along the way is fascinating and illustrative. From suffragette Sue White’s hard-earned “prison pin” to President-elect Harding’s blackmail case, we get a real sense of the sights, sounds and scandals of the time period.

Weiss’ description of Catt shaking down local pols, asking “Are there any known bribable legislators from your district?” is particularly instructive. Catt used this intel to help determine which votes she could count on for ratification, and which could not be trusted. Anyone who questions whether American women are tough enough to campaign for president need only read this book to be assured they are, and have been for more than a century.

Weiss combed libraries and archives from Boston to Memphis, sorting through handwritten letters and news clippings to give an inside glimpse into the complex struggle to ratify the 19th Amendment. She provides more than 40 pages of fine-print notes and bibliographic references to support her work.

It’s interesting to consider that the personal correspondence of the major players in the women’s suffrage movement is what gives us such insight into their personalities and their perspectives. These letters have been preserved for future generations to study in university and public library special collections, the Library of Congress, and in state and federal archives. 

Two points: What have we lost, now that people no longer write letters? The deluge of emails and texts and tweets is burying us in ones and zeroes, with no cogent, consistent way to save and organize them for posterity. Second: The decision to shutter the National Archives and Records Administration building in Seattle is a great impediment to historians and other researchers, particularly those with an interest in the people and politics of the Northwest. Not having the tools to study democracy is a threat to democracy itself.

Weiss’ work is an important documentation of the women’s suffrage movement, and gripping reading, too. In the end, the passage of the 19th Amendment was assured, making the United States the 27th nation in the world to give women the right to vote.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). She encourages everyone to register to vote – and vote in every election. Visit https://www.wcls.org/vote for convenient links to voter registration and election information.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, February 12, 2020.)