Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists by Jean H. Baker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"Cast off the shackles of yesterday..."
Abusive husbands, isolation, overwhelming work of the home, sole responsibility in rearing children, little to no outlet for creativity, demands for sex in a marriage where the thought of pleasure plays in the background under the fear of getting with child, again. The physical drain of multiple pregnancies, the emotional drain of infant death and the unknown postpartum depression. All experiences of some woman in marriage, many in which they had little say and even less recourse.
The inability to be independent. The societal pressures of place. The inability to own property, speak in most public places, hold positions of authority or really, positions anywhere except in the home. The understanding that you have no voice, even in your own life once you marry - but no honest and decent way to be successful without marriage. This what most women faced in the 19th century.
It makes perfect sense that the cause of woman's rights piggy-backed those of anti-slavery.
"Shoulder to into the fray..."
Lucy Stone's oration, Susan B. Anthony's strategies, E. Cady Stanton's words, Frances Willard's accommodation (which paved the way for modern day feminism), and Paul's radical actions that tipped the pot - all women who worked tirelessly for the cause of women's rights and the vote. In this book, Jean H. Baker showed me their hard fought accomplishments (even when they seemed slight), and made me stand in awe of the very sacrifices and difficulties they shouldered their entire lives. For my sake.
"Our daughter's daughters will adore us..."
It's hard for me to put comprehensive thoughts together without simply repeating the history learned, but there were things about each woman that stood out to me...
Lucy Stone's words, from letters mostly, were gorgeous and I wish she had written a personal history like the others. Striving to put herself into school for seven years, then doing so, then spurning the dogged advances of Henry Blackwell until he proved himself, and then being the first recorded woman in American history to not take his name in marriage? Fascinating and brave.
And it's such a shame not to mention how she was a most popular and successful anti-slavery lecturer, how she stood for independence in a marriage and the right for women to speak publicly and own property. She was forever a 'woman disappointed' but was a portrait of hard work for many woman's causes, including and most importantly, the vote.
Susan B. Anthony. In my mind, this woman was a bully. She lived in 'blessed singleness' and was doggedly single minded - women needed to be able to vote to accomplish any type of equality, to gain any form of freedom. She was devastated when Lucy Stone dared to marry and put-out when her own best friend, E. Cady Stanton also succumbed (and had children, the horror). As Baker said, she was Napoleon. Her strategies were what gave Woman's suffrage a voice, and while others were seeking suffrage at the state level, she understood that true change would only come from a constitutional amendment.
Though Anthony positioned the voice to be heard, her best friend, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, gave the voice life. Cady Stanton was the writer and organizer. She backed Anthony every step of the way (although sometimes only after she was done nursing her babe) and proved an integral cog in Anthony's machine, yet neither taking credit for their part. Cady Stanton most inspired me with her vocal stance that women be self-reliant, something that my own mother instilled in me and of which I'm grateful.
She was a mother of seven children, five of which were boys...needless to say, there was a lot in that quarter that I identified with and yet, though exhausted and in need of a long vacation, she found the time and stamina to do big things.
One of the most refreshing things about these women was that they were flawed. In fact, I'm not sure that I actually like any of them, though I certainly admire and respect them. Frances Willard, on the other hand, had a way that appealed to me and a philosophy that encouraged me. She was accommodating. Of the strong belief that women should stand for their vote, she encouraged this by any and all means chosen by that woman. Unlike Stone's roots in her Quaker background, Anthony's determination that women not marry and give up what little rights they had, or Cady Stanton's belief that only the educated be allowed to vote, Willard felt that all women had the right to pursue the course best suited for them. She was most inspiring, to me.
Which brings me to Alice Paul. I think, without really having any basis in fact, that beyond Anthony, Alice Paul is most remembered as being the driving force to suffrage victory. The interesting thing to me about this book is that though this may be true, she certainly was the last, loudest voice in the final push, it seemed to me that the ratification of the 19th amendment was more of a result of perfect timing. In the end, after decades of speechifying, traveling, lectures, petitions and picketing by thousands of women, Alice Paul's radical drive to get the woman's vote above all other concerns (including that of WWI) tipped a stubbornly self-righteous Woodrow Wilson over the edge into hypocrisy. Paul's prison time and horrid treatment within (which caused public outcry) during a time when Wilson was calling for democracy among other nations while he sat in a country where 20,000,000 of its citizens could not themselves take part...well, there wasn't anything left to do but save face and encourage Congress.
"And they'll sing in grateful chorus..."
This isn't to downplay Paul's amazing courage, or those women who stood with her. What the adage "timing is everything" does remind me of in this movement and Paul's time, is that when we truly stand up for the things that are important, when we are in the midst of a long battle, when the mountain seems so insurmountable, when there is no coming dawn on our horizon- the battle is still worth fighting - we do not know how things will unfold or when that last piece necessary for victory will come.
I really enjoyed this book. It did read like a textbook and it was a little dry, but it was also compelling and marvelously written. Baker has such a deft hand with her history, teasing you with interesting and relevant tidbits but never veering from her topic at hand. I did a deplorable job relaying that this book is really about these women's lives more than their accomplishments and public face. To make up for that in the end, all I can say is that for those who are interested in this history, this would be a great book to pick up.
"Well done, Sister Suffragette."
(Can you tell that Mary Poppin's Sister Suffragette played on repeat in my head during the duration? I won't expound on the disappointing epiphany I had about the movie after reading this book however...)
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