So there were a couple things. First, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the dominating figures in the first half century of the movement, when she’s really enraged not just that women are excluded from the right to vote but women like herself are excluded from the right to vote, she expresses herself in ways that are…she’s charged with being racist. I think it’s more accurate to say she’s an elitist, because she’s as dismissive of European immigrants as she is of the formerly enslaved.

Stanton made really, really terrible comments about people a generation removed from slavery—she called them the sons and daughters of “bootblacks” or sometimes she called them “Sambo.” Sometimes that charge of racism flows over to her partner Susan B. Anthony. That’s not really fair. Anthony’s abolitionism was much deeper and more consistent. When you follow her career, until the day she died, she was always, wherever she went, she would make sure that she went to black churches, black universities, black societies.

Second, by the turn of century we’re moving into a whole different generation of leaders, none of whom have any roots in the abolition movement, who come of age during the period in which Reconstruction is portrayed as a terrible disaster for the nation and who are part and parcel of the white supremacist atmosphere of the early 20th century.

In those final eight years, 1912 to 1920, when the suffrage movement breaks through for a variety of reasons, to a real chance to win a constitutional amendment, the U.S. government is controlled by the Democratic Party. The president is a Southern Democrat. Washington, D.C., the home of the federal government, is a southern city. So the political atmosphere is radically hostile, at the national level, to anything that will help to return the African American vote.

In all the research you did for this book, was there anything that surprised you?

I was incredibly impressed by the congressional lobbying. I don’t think I appreciated, until I wrote this book, the quiet importance of Frances Willard and the WCTU, which doesn’t really fit into our normal story of suffrage radicalism. This sort of conventional women’s organization was important in bringing mainstream women, and not just the kind of radicals who had fought for the abolition of slavery, to recognize the importance of votes for women to achieve their goals, not just because these were high principles of equal rights, but because they couldn’t get what they wanted done. Whether it was the prohibition on alcohol or the end of child labor, they couldn’t do those things without the vote.

One of the lessons of the book is that the notion that women’s suffrage was a single-issue movement is just wrong. All of them had other goals. Carrie Chapman Catt was interested in world peace. Alice Paul was interested in equal rights for women beyond the right to vote. Anthony was interested in women’s right to earn a living. Stanton was interested in what we would call reproductive rights for women. Each of them had a larger vision of social change in which women’s suffrage was fundamental as a tool.