October 22, 2020

The Book Every Woman Must Read This Summer

"The Woman's Hour" by Elaine Weiss, who zooms in to NoMi June 11
By Clark Miller | May 30, 2020

One hundred years ago, American women were not “given” the right to vote. They earned it through seven decades of struggle. All that time, they held to the simple argument that withholding voting rights for half of this country’s citizens was wrongheaded and blatantly undemocratic.

On Thursday, June 11, the National Writers Series celebrates that centennial with an online appearance by award-winning journalist Elaine Weiss, who will discuss her book, “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote.”

Ultimately, the deciding battle over suffrage came in Tennessee, a bastion of white (male) power, chauvinism, archconservative religion and entrenched Southern racism. All of those forces came together to defend the status quo.

Many (though not all) elected officials there aligned themselves enthusiastically (and often profitably) with corporate interests — in particular, those of the powerful railroad lobby. Also, as hard as it might be to imagine today, a significant number of women in Tennessee and elsewhere fought hard against suffrage to ensure their “more refined” gender was “protected” from the rough and tumble world of politics.

Racism was the black elephant in the room. Though rarely spoken of explicitly, defenders of the Old South knew that if white women got the vote, it meant African-American women would, too. That, they decided, couldn’t be allowed.

Meanwhile, fire-breathing religious leaders — of whom there were more than a few in the South — gave cover to male dominance by belittling the intelligence of women. As Rev. T.H. Harrison of Nashville’s Adams Presbyterian Church then opined, “When you hand her the ballot box, you simply give her a club to knock her brains out [and] ….a coffin in which to bury the dignities of womanhood.”

Northern Express interviewed Weiss about the Woman’s Hour, the historical context in which women finally won the vote, and leaders on both sides of the issue.

Express: Congratulations on a deeply-researched book. You’ve brought to life quite a cast of characters. One early reviewer remarked that several of them would fit well in a novel.

Weiss: [laughs] I’m not a fiction writer, but it’s interesting when a reader says, “I really loved your novel.” But if it reads like a novel, that’s great. I picked three people who demonstrate the nature of the fight. My goal was to show them as flesh and blood people [and] not as “helpmates” or victims.

Express: What about Carrie Catt, leader of the mainstream National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA)?

Weiss: Catt is probably my lead character. She was a master strategist, a famous orator known all over the world, a protégé of Susan Anthony, and a leader of the international women’s suffrage movement.

Express: And Sue White, of the more militant pro-suffrage Women’s Party?

Weiss: Sue White left the NAWSA to join the Women’s Party. She wanted to become a lawyer, so for her, it was not only about the vote but also about opportunities. She got tired of waiting, being polite. She was ready to be confrontational. Her group was very unpopular in Tennessee. Later, she became a lawyer and worked in the [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt administration.

Express: And on the other side of the issue, we meet Josephine Pearson. In many ways, Pearson and the other women who fought against getting the vote are a mystery to me. Why would they fight against their own self-interest?

Weiss: Pearson was the personification of the anti-suffragist Southern woman. She grew up in a conservative minister’s family. Her mother was a strident temperance organizer and racist who supported the idea that a woman’s place is in the home. Pearson espoused the “Southern view” of suffrage.

Express: What do you mean by the “Southern view”?

Weiss: That it is beneath women’s dignity and “purity” to be involved in voting.

Express: It may surprise readers that railroads were also staunch opponents of the movement.  

Weiss: Railroads always needed government help with right-of-ways, eminent domain, all kinds of things. And they had a very effective lobbying apparatus both in Congress and in the States to make sure they got what they wanted. They used money, gave free rail passes to legislators and did other “favors.” That was especially true in 1920s. The railroads had been nationalized during the war. They took a hit. Also, the rise of automobiles and highways meant competition. Basically, railroads wanted to keep things as they were.

Express: As you describe it, the passage was anything but assured that summer in Tennessee.

Weiss: Yes. Imagine 70 years of active campaigning for the political franchise.

Express: How did World War I affect the suffrage movement?

Weiss: If there hadn’t already been all those decades of fighting for the vote, the war might not have been such a tipping pint. Until then, not a lot seems to get done. But then the war comes. Women pledge fealty and go to work. Many served on farms — often in uniform as members of the Woman’s Land Army. They demanded to be paid prevailing wages. They took jobs in munitions factories and worked as train conductors — all roles traditionally considered suitable only for men. And they did it to save the nation, which made it harder for politicians to say that women are frail, not bright, and too emotionally unstable to vote, arguments that now ring so hollow. So WWI becomes the spark. 

Express: And what about voter suppression efforts today? It seems to be an abiding theme in America.

Weiss: Yes, it’s still relevant. Some states are restricting the vote. Today, voting rights have been cast as a partisan issue, and that’s dangerous. It’s really a test of our democracy. I’m very concerned about laws that suppress voters.

The June 11 National Writers Series (free) event starts at 7 p.m. and will take place remotely via Zoom. Participants can register at bit.ly/ElaineWeissNWS. The Writers Series is also bundling Elaine Weiss’s book and a dozen Morsels for $30 if you order by June 8. Find details at www.nationalwritersseries.org.

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