How the Battle for Women’s Suffrage Played Out in the Pages of the Book Review



On Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th amendment was ratified, marking a pivotal moment in the fight for women’s rights. This centennial has provided myriad opportunities to reflect on the amendment’s legacy — from the newfound parity the vote represented to the sidelining and enduring disenfranchisement faced by women of color. Even before the amendment’s passage, debates about the women’s movement were taking place in the pages of the Book Review. Women’s history and early feminist thought were newly available to readers as writers attempted to understand the “new woman” and her goals. In these archival pieces, reviewers consider the merits of suffrage literature — and occasionally, of suffrage itself.

Today Elizabeth Cady Stanton is considered both one of the American suffrage movement’s pioneers and a racist who impeded interracial solidarity within the movement. But our review of her 1898 memoir, which chronicles her life and work to defeat laws subjugating women, while ultimately laudatory, opens with a comment on her homemaking skills: “An earnest reformer was she, but the volume shows the delight she felt in being an excellent housekeeper and how, as the mother of a large family, she cared for her children. Mrs. Stanton has shown that some women can advance the social conditions of their own sex and yet be good wives and mothers.”

According to our reviewer in 1903, this multivolume history of the movement — produced by Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ida Husted Harper — sought to answer one crucial question: “Why are the political rights of women denied them?” The answer is as complex as you might expect, with the books’ famous editors drawing on “trunks full” of movement materials.

In 1909, H.G. Wells, the British author of “The War of the Worlds,” turned to equally supernatural territory — that of the liberated woman. “Ann Veronica” follows the exploits of its titular suffragist, a “young person,” our reviewer wrote, “whose frankness makes you sit up and gasp.” A “new woman” of “respectably dull parentage,” Ann Veronica seeks to cast off Victorian sensibilities and embrace the whole mess of life. The same can be said of her story, which our reviewer described as “surprisingly clever,” “amazingly daring” and “recklessly true to life.”

Mary Johnston was a suffragist and one of the most popular female writers in early-20th-century America. Her 1913 novel, “Hagar,” was an “argument,” our reviewer wrote, “for the emancipation of women.” As a young girl, Hagar is raised in a Virginia mansion by a family who scolds her for the rebellious act of reading Darwin. She grows up, finds literary success and joins a circle of women in New York working for the vote. Our reviewer thought that Hagar’s journey, and that of her suffragist peers, was ultimately unsatisfying. “Their success is such a foregone conclusion,” he wrote, “that the ‘final applause’ which invariably follows gives us about as much thrill as we would feel on beholding the triumphant finish of the same ladies’ morning attack upon their Whiteley exerciser.”

This novel by Margaret Deland follows the life of Frederica Payton, a young woman in the Ohio Valley intent on an independent existence. She opens a real estate office, shocking her friends and family, and engages, as our reviewer wrote in 1916, in all sorts of scandalous behavior: “She smokes cigarettes, sits on tables and desks, uses much slang and talks straightforwardly to men and women alike.” But the novel’s biggest transgression? “Mrs. Deland,” wrote our reviewer, “breaks violently with one of the time-honored traditions of fiction and makes her heroine plain.”

Three years after securing the vote, the suffrage leaders Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler published their history of the movement, examining why the United States took so very long to change. The liquor lobby, they argued, played a pivotal role in delaying the cause. Our reviewer doubted this charge, and expressed incredulity at the significant hurdles faced by the suffrage movement, arguing they ought to let bygones be bygones. “If the suffragists cannot take their victories like ladies,” he wrote, “they might at least moderate their language toward those who have long forgotten and forgiven the battle and have turned, as is the practice of Americans, to the issues of today.”

In 1933, Sinclair Lewis, the first American awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, published “Ann Vickers,” his “Best Portrait of a Woman.” The novel follows the suffragist and reformer Ann Vickers, who, “like so many of those young women,” our reviewer wrote, finds “it hard to make the adjustment between her desire to count as an individual and the insistent demand of her emotional needs as a woman.” She pursues a progressive career, yet finds her happiness impeded by romantic disappointments. A woman’s ultimate desire for a man, wrote our reviewer, is “a road from which there is no turning.”



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