Women’s Review of Books – by Lori D. Ginzberg


It’s Complicated
Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote
By Ellen Carol DuBois
New York, NY; Simon & Schuster, 2020, 400 pp., $28.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Lori D. Ginzberg

For many radical and socialist feminists in the
1970s, the vote was at best irrelevant, at worst
a liberal accommodation to a broken system.
Politicians’ lies about the war in Vietnam, the
limitations of civil rights legislation, and the
crimes of Watergate offered evidence that politics
could not serve a progressive cause. The revolutionary potential of building new institutions, teaching
women’s studies, and changing consciousness was
far more compelling. Reagan’s election in 1980 (with,
in Ellen DuBois’s words, the “collapse of progressive
politics and the demonization of radical ideas”)1
shocked us into remembering that elections matter;
since 2016, younger progressives and feminists know
how this feels.

Over the course of many books, DuBois, until
recently a professor of history at UCLA, taught
budding feminist historians like me a related
lesson. At a time when women’s historians—a
small group of graduate students for the most
part—were concerned with women’s “private”
lives, she underscored women’s struggle for the
vote. Certainly, she recognized that “the vote did
not solve the problem of women’s oppression,”
then or now.

Nevertheless, the demand for
suffrage, seen in its context, was radical, part of the
reimagining of women’s place in public life. As she
argued in her groundbreaking book Feminism and
Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s
Movement in America, 1848–1869 (1978), the
movement for woman suffrage transformed the
people who led it; it was “women’s involvement in
the movement, far more than the eventual
enfranchisement of women,”3 that demonstrated
the radical potential of activism itself. In this and
later writings, DuBois, to play on her own words,
profoundly reconstructed the role of nineteenthcentury feminism in a liberal democracy.
Her new book, Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for
the Vote, follows forty years of scholarly work on
the meanings of the vote, the activists who
devoted their lives to acquiring it, and the
disputes among the major players themselves. It
takes into account many new voices—of African
Americans, workers, and a few Native and Latina
suffrage advocates—who labored for women’s
voting rights, often in the face of politicians’ and
suffrage leaders’ efforts to exclude them. Readers
will find themselves deeply immersed in politics
here, seeing women demand a place at the table,
lobby politicians and their parties, march in the
streets, and count votes.
To a large extent, the book tracks what is by now
a fairly conventional narrative, and little of it will
be new to historians. It places Elizabeth Cady
Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in starring roles, and
often raises other voices and strategies in relation to
theirs. It dramatically reenacts the movement’s
origins in abolitionism, Victoria Woodhull’s brief
ascendency and run for the presidency, and
Anthony’s very public trial for voting. Here too are
the troubling rifts: abolitionists’ and Republicans’
post-Civil War insistence that African American
men’s enfranchisement should take priority over
women of any race; Stanton and Anthony’s
emphasis on white women’s greater “fitness” to
vote; and the emergence of two independent
organizations whose members would devote
decades to the struggle to gain the vote. Hostilities,
both personal and strategic—Carrie Chapman
Catt’s and Alice Paul’s most notably—shape the
story in the era of mass communications,
municipal, state, and federal lobbying, and militant
actions leading to arrests and hunger strikes.
Seventy years of organizing is a long time, and
victories and defeats took place on many
complex—even contradictory—fronts. Thus,
DuBois’s sweeping history includes wage-earning
and immigrant women’s organizing, black
women’s clubs and anti-lynching organizations,
white Southern suffragists’ commitment to
maintaining Jim Crow through white women’s
votes, and temperance activists who were certain
that Christian women would “protect the home” if
only they had the vote. The victories of state
suffrage (women in fifteen states had full suffrage
before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified)
play an important but largely supporting role, their
victories evidence that “resistance to votes for
women had finally fallen to the relentless suffrage
All historians engage, more or less explicitly, in
conversation with one another, with historical
actors, and with the public. In this book Ellen
DuBois reenters conversations that she helped
launch about the place of suffrage within the
broader woman’s movement and the strategies
activists employed on their way to establishing
woman suffrage in the US Constitution. Some onceheated topics are barely touched on here—access to
school and municipal suffrage and the early birth
control movement, for instance, make only a
passing appearance—while others pervade the
The most contentious conversation revolves
around the extent and impact of racism in the
women’s suffrage movement. No historian, and
certainly not Ellen DuBois, argues that the
movement was free of racist tactics and ideology.
Throughout Suffrage, DuBois points to white
activists excluding or marginalizing African
American women, denigrating foreigners and
former slaves, and condescending to voters who
were less educated than themselves. She
underscores Alice Paul’s consistent efforts to
minimize black women’s visibility within the
movement. And she demonstrates African
American women’s deep commitment to register
and vote in the face of equally determined white
women’s resistance to their suffrage. Mistakes, she
acknowledges, were made.
But in the last twenty years, these conversations have gained nuance and complexity that
seem lost here. The question is not whether, as
DuBois puts it, “deep-seated racism” was the
suffrage movement’s “fatal flaw” but how that
racism shaped the very definition of and struggle
for rights themselves. Adding women who were
not white, Protestant, and privileged to the
suffrage mix is essential to a more complete
history, but it does not fully engage with how
white women’s sense of entitlement shaped what
we think of as the most important “women’s
rights.” Stanton, for instance, did not suddenly
partake of a “suspicion of political democracy” by
supporting educated suffrage in her later years;
bigotry suffused her longstanding hostility to “the
most ignorant and degraded men—both natives
and foreigners” who had rights that were denied
her. Similarly, although it is hard to find African
American women who actually opposed woman
suffrage, black women refused to separate their
advocacy of the vote from their work for racial
justice; indeed, almost from the start, it was black
men’s disfranchisement in the South that propelled
African American women into the suffrage cause.
Nor was Alice Paul’s “single-minded” focus on
women’s equality distinct from her remaining
“uninterested in a racially inclusive women’s
enfranchisement.” The racism within the women’s
suffrage movement, as I and other historians have
suggested, cannot be understood simply through
appeals to the time (the “everyone else was racist
too” argument) or by accepting it as a strategic
accommodation. DuBois perpetuates the view that
racism and exclusion, however unfortunate, were
peripheral to the main event—and that a deep
focus on that racism could, as Alice Paul believed,
“distract” from that central goal.
Every author makes choices; no book—certainly
not one that covers seventy years of political
struggle—can include every character or point of
dispute. Still, many of DuBois’s choices reflect her
admiration for such leaders as Elizabeth Cady
Stanton at the cost of a more complex analysis. The
insights of a number of groundbreaking books on
the women’s movement—Kathi Kern on Stanton’s
Woman’s Bible, Lisa Tetrault on Stanton and
Anthony’s brilliant shaping of the movement’s
origin story, Brittney Cooper on African American
women intellectuals, and Faye Dudden on the
struggle over the Reconstruction amendments—are
absent here.
4 In addition, important work on the
meaning of the vote to African American
communities facing the reemergence of white
supremacy, especially that by Elsa Barkley Brown,
goes unexplored.
5 Ellen DuBois takes as her
starting position that embracing suffrage as the
primary goal of the women’s movement was an
unambiguously good thing; surely few of us would
disagree that the rights and privileges of equal
citizenship are worth sharing. But what the vote
meant was a point of sharp dispute among women
who supported woman suffrage, and it is well worth
considering what interests underlay all sides. It
matters that women of color and working-class
women—along with white supremacists—were
welcome to sit at a suffrage table whose agenda,
contents, and manners were already set.
In the face of divergent, and often muddled,
expectations of what votes for women would
achieve, the post-suffrage years—not to mention
more recent history—offer a sobering lesson.
DuBois expected the publication of Suffrage to
coincide with the first female presidency rather
than one “awash in misogyny, racism, and
nativism.” Like many of us, she finds in the
“unprecedented numbers of enraged women
taking to the streets” and the 2018 successes “of a
virtual flood of women candidates” some hopeful
signs. But an interpretation that holds the women’s
suffrage movement more fully accountable for its
flaws might focus on more disturbing evidence:
that a majority of white women, many of them
college-educated, voted against that female
candidate. This, along with all the marching, is a
legacy of the struggle for women’s votes.
Inevitably this history—and this book’s
publication in 2020—complicates commemoration.
The question of how to balance pride and
disappointment, victory and critique,
accomplishment and renewed struggle is not a new
one. DuBois writes that in 1876, as the nation
prepared for its centennial, a suffragist pleaded
with Connecticut Governor Joseph Hawley, who
chaired the Centennial Celebration, to allow
suffragists to present a formal protest against their
disfranchisement. Hawley responded, “Tomorrow
we propose to celebrate what we have done the
past hundred years, not what we have failed to do.”
We should take this to heart as we commemorate
the long road to and from the Nineteenth
Amendment: history is complicated, people (then
and now) disagree, there were roads that were not
taken, activists make morally reprehensible
choices—and what we have failed to do matters.
Amidst the paeons to an expanded democracy,
including a flood of exhibits, calendars, and
suffrage tchotchkes, forthcoming books by
Cathleen Cahill, Martha Jones, Alison Parker, Lisa
Tetrault, and others will add a great deal to the
conversation. The struggle over woman suffrage

Lori D. Ginzberg is a professor of History and
Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn
State University. She is the author of several books,
including Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life
(Hill and Wang, 2009)