The Once & Only 19th Amendment Centennial Course: A 2020 Blog: Introduction

First Week.

My students had required reading for our first meeting: the wonderful catalogue of the National Portrait Gallery exhibit, Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence. The first three chapters and the associated discussion served as a kind of trailer for the whole course.

Lisa Tetrault’s “To fight by remembering, or the making of Seneca Falls,” a brief version of her book, The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) focused our attention on historical story-telling. The “myth” of the title is the notion of Seneca Falls as the launching of a continuous movement for woman suffrage.

We explored how that story was constructed by the authors of the History of Woman Suffrage – Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage and others (volume I published 1881) for particular political purposes, specifically, to breathe life into a social movement that was facing a frustrating low point. Writing this history involved two aspects: remembering and telling. Remembering is a conscious and a nonconscious process. My students and I talked about how that might work in historical memory – especially historical memory by advocates and activists. And we discussed telling: how we shape what we say, and to whom, and how. A point that Tetrault makes is that the telling is itself a political act – it was a movement tool. And not telling, not including, is also a political act. Once there is the remembering and the telling, how should we understand reading and learning?

We also spent some time trying to understand the relationship between historical and biographical time. We began by imagining Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: just the sheer expanse of their lives and political careers over those long decades. Even if we start from the point in the mid-1860s when they were told women should hang back and wait their turn, they worked and waited and eventually died decades later, before there were real successes.  We talked about what real life might have felt like for women and for men, and men and women of different social groups at different times in our history. And we talk about what makes different lengths of time feel “long” or “short,” depending on whether they occur within our lives, a while before, or a long time ago.

An engaging twist on the problem of historical memory and re-telling. I played a video of Kerry Washington performing Sojourner Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” The students liked it, of course. But then we discussed the fact that noone really knows what the words in the speech were, because it was an observer who wrote it down. Moreover, it is often written as a transliteration of her supposed accent — apparently a version of a southern African American accent.  Why is her speech transliterated to an accent when we don’t usually preserve a speech text that way. And finally, why is it written that way, and why does every performance give her that accented when she was born and raised in northern New York, and her first language (or one of her first two) would have been Dutch because her owners were Dutch?

The second essay, Martha Jones’ “The politics of black womanhood, 1848-2008” (pp.29-47), focused our story even more directly on the intersectionalities of race and gender in understanding the story of enfranchisement of “women.” It provoked for our discussion a range of critical questions that we will explore more deeply throughout the semester. How and in what ways did African American women raise and press for their rights as women both within their own communities, especially churches, and within the wider society and context of racist oppression? In what ways has racist oppression been gendered? In what ways has gendered oppression been “raced?” What are the historical dimensions of these struggles, thinking especially of changes from the Reconstruction to post-Reconstruction period and beyond?

We explored the article’s introduction to African American women’s actions with respect to pursuing woman suffrage – how and when where they done in concert with white women? How and when were they done in race-specific groups?  What was the role of racism in these dynamics? What is the role of community-specific agendas among African American women? What is the impact of analyzing history as though women’s rights and African American rights are different, non-overlapping, and possibly conflicting goals? How did African American women use their voting rights as the franchise was extended for women in the North? How do we understand and account for racism without erasing the agency of African American women? How do we understand and account for the oppression of “women”, as differentiated as that group is across social groups, without erasing the agency of women? What does our reading about African American women’s political action teach us about gender and political action more generally? Because surely we shouldn’t think of accounts of white women as teaching us about “women,” while accounts of African American women teach us only about African American women.

Then, we read Susan Goodier’s “A woman’s place: Organized resistance to the franchise” (pp.49-67).  This piece opens our discussion of resistance to woman suffrage, focusing in particular on women’s opposition. To understand gender politics and the history of woman suffrage in particular, we have to take understanding the perspectives and actions of all major groups of women involved. It simply doesn’t do to take “your own side” seriously and dismiss the others as dupes or stupid. What do we learn by attending to the “anti’s” seriously and closely?

Finally, given that the assigned reading was a beautifully-illustrated museum exhibition catalogue, I asked the students to identify and discuss their favorite illustrations in each chapter.  A few they picked out: The famous illustration of Victoria Woodhull addressing the Judiciary Committee. (I passed around a picture on my phone of the gorgeous ceiling over what was that room but is now hallway in front of an elevator – thanks to my son for working with the congressional historian to identify the exact space.) A photo of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in which ECS looked less than happy to be photographed. A photo of Nannie Burroughs and other women gathering during a Baptist convention. A painting of the 1840 Convention of the Anti-Slavery Society.

(Look to the right, to Recent Posts, to connect with the other weeks.)