A Review of Three New Washington D.C. Exhibits on the Women’s Suffrage Movement

women's Sufferage

Are you looking for one more quick get-away this summer?  Why not take a women’s suffrage-themed trip to Washington D.C.?

Over at The New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler reviews exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery, Library of Congress, and National Archives.  These exhibits, Schuessler argues, reveal the complexity of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States.

Here is a taste of her piece:

Together, these shows — all curated by women — make up one of the richest explorations of women’s history yet assembled in the capital, or anywhere else. But they also offer a lesson in the messiness, complexities and compromises involved in any movement for social change — and the fraught politics of historical memory itself.

For years, the drive for women’s suffrage was presented mainly as the story of middle-class white women and iconic national leaders like Anthony and Stanton. That story began with the Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York in 1848 and ended with the triumphant adoption of the amendment on Aug. 26, 1920, which resulted in the single largest extension of democratic voting rights in American history.

But in recent decades scholars have taken a less top-down view, emphasizing the movement’s multiple starting points and patchwork progress through hundreds of state and local campaigns. They have also excavated the role of African-American women, who were largely excluded from the major, white-led suffrage organizations and marginalized in the early histories of the movement, if they were mentioned at all.

Even before the centennial year began, there have been tensions over who and what to celebrate — or even how to sum up the amendment’s significance.

Read the entire piece here.

Help the Library of Congress Transcribe Suffragist Papers

women's Sufferage

The Library of Congress needs your help with this crowdsourcing project.  This would be a great project for an American history course.

Here is a taste of Brigit Katz’s piece at Smithsonian.com:

Over the past year, By the People has introduced a number of “campaigns” calling on volunteers to transcribe the digitized papers of Abraham LincolnClara BartonWalt Whitman and others. The suffrage campaign coincides with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which was passed by Congress in June 1919 and ratified the following year. Library experts hope that by transcribing these documents, volunteers will not only help make suffrage materials more accessible, but also “engage with our collections and feel a connection with the suffragists,” as Elizabeth Novara, an American women’s history specialist and curator of a new suffragist exhibition at the library, puts it.

Anyone can participate in the transcription effort. Once a given page has been completed, it must be approved by at least one registered volunteer before it is integrated into the library’s main website. “It’s a consensus model,” explains Lauren Algee, By the People’ senior innovation specialist, “similar to Wikipedia.” Users are encouraged to tag documents, with the goal of supplying additional information that would not be captured by the transcription.

Learn more here.

Abortion and the Legacy of the Suffragettes

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Here is another example of how the study of history influences present debates.

Which side of today’s debate over abortion gets to claim the women’s rights movement?  Writing at The Atlantic, Emma Green tries to figure it out.  Here is a taste of her piece, “The Epic Political Battle Over the Legacy of the Suffragettes”:

A century after suffrage, the women’s movement is still fighting a battle over inheritance. Progressive feminists widely claim the mantle of suffrage activists, drawing on their imagery and channeling their energy in fights against Trump-era policies. But a range of conservative activists, especially in the anti-abortion movement, also identify with the early women’s movement. They see their values and ideas reflected in a version of feminism that predates, and remains separate from, the sexual revolution. In this tug-of-war over the suffragist legacy, both sides airbrush the parts of history that don’t fit their narrative, cramming suffragists into ideological boxes that simply didn’t exist in their time.

The movement for suffrage spanned from the mid-19th century to the early 20th, and was advanced by women with a range of political priorities and viewpoints. They were progressives, in the broadest sense of the word: They believed in pushing for social change and using politics for the betterment of humanity. Yet many of their views might seem shocking today, especially to Americans who identify with the same “progressive” movement of which suffrage activists were a part.

By and large, white American suffragists were racist, arguing that giving the vote to white women would cancel out the influence of newly enfranchised black men. This was as much a matter of political strategy as personal prejudice, says Liette Gidlow, an associate professor at Wayne State University who is working on an upcoming book on this subject. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and so-called grandfather clauses kept many black men away from the polls in the years following the Civil War, even after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment gave them the vote. “Many leading … white suffragists were deeply afraid that … [if] the Susan B. Anthony amendment”—which proposed women’s suffrage—“would lead to the return of African Americans … to the polls, that would damage support for the amendment,” Gidlow told me. Even after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, many states passed laws limiting the voting rights of black Americans, including black women.

Many of the suffragists promoted temperance, or the banning of alcohol in pursuit of virtuous self-restraint—a principle that was enshrined in the Constitution around the same time as suffrage, although it was later reversed.

And many of these activists viewed the world through a gendered lens, believing that their distinctive, womanly insights would be an asset to the political realm. This is where suffragists diverge most sharply from today’s elite progressive feminists, who contest the idea that womanhood is distinctive and essential.

Some of the core causes of the contemporary women’s movement, such as abortion access, may have been puzzling or even unthinkable to women activists a century ago. Views on gender are one of the most electric dividing lines in American culture today, especially among women. Despite their familiarity with debates over women’s roles, if suffragists time-traveled to 2019, they wouldn’t have the language or intellectual framework to understand today’s controversies about the nature of gender.

Read the entire piece here.

Out of the Zoo: “Leave Them Scratching Their Heads”

Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman speaks at the Messiah College Humanities Symposium

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she writes about what she learned from a recent lecture on campus.  Enjoy! –JF

If you were on Messiah’s campus last Thursday, you may have had the privilege to hear Marian Wright Edelman give the keynote address for Messiah’s 2019 humanities symposium titled “Toward the Common Good: Ending Child Poverty in the U.S.” A graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund and has worked tirelessly on behalf of disadvantaged children for many years. She held nothing back Thursday and quickly called her South-Central Pennsylvania audience to action. She repeatedly emphasized that we cannot be satisfied until all of America’s children are lifted out of poverty. Kids only get one childhood, Edelman explained, so we need to be moving with a sense of urgency.

So how do we do that? To put it in a few words, Edelman said good change is done in scuttwork, in the menial but manageable tasks necessary to meet pressing needs. We must be persistent, and cannot be afraid to be a little pushy in our pursuit of meaningful reform. We don’t have to be “big dogs,” to use Edelman’s term, gnawing off the heads of our nation’s problems, but instead we can be “fleas” who keep policymakers scratching until they’ve had enough.

History is painted with buzzing fleas who, in pursuit of a worthwhile cause, pestered and pushed dreams into realities. Suffragettes were fleas who bit and tormented until they got to vote. They marched, lobbied, wrote and rallied until it was easier for the government to comply with their wishes than to keep resisting their efforts.

The Civil Rights movement was full of fleas, too. One flea planted herself in a bus seat, and when she was forced to move others decided to walk to work in protest. Some fleas sat down at lunch counters even though they knew they wouldn’t be served. Nine more young fleas from Arkansas went to a school where they weren’t wanted. More than 200,000 fleas marched up to the Lincoln Memorial on a hot August day in 1963 to listen to Martin Luther King call for change.

Since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year a new swarm of fleas has emerged in the public eye. These fleas, fed up with recurring gun violence in American schools and seeking to make learning a safe endeavor for everyone, started a movement of their own.

Real change is rarely done by the “big dogs” who try to single-handedly tear down injustice, no matter how strong they are or how eloquently they speak; real change is done by the fleas who persist, band together, and don’t go away. Anyone can be a flea, Edelman urged her audience; if we follow the need with a united front, even the smallest of actions can lead to great change.

When a Popular and Powerful First Lady Opposed the Women’s Suffrage Movement

Sarah Polk

Her name was Sara Childress Polk, the wife of President James Polk (1845-1849).  Read Anna Diamond’s piece at Smithsonian.com:

In July 1848, as hundreds of women suffragists gathered in Seneca Falls to demand the right to vote and assert their right to participate in the public sphere, one prominent woman in Washington, D.C., was busy shaping the nation’s policy and guiding its direction at the highest level of government. Unfortunately for the activists, she didn’t share their politics.

First Lady Sarah Polk formed half of an unusual political partnership with her husband, President James Polk, during his sole term in office from 1845 to 1849. Despite his brief time in office, Polk had an outsized influence on American history, particularly with regard to the Mexican-American War.

As president, Polk sought his wife’s counsel on decisions, relied on her smart politicking and benefited from her popularity. Her active role in his presidency made her the most powerful woman of the era, asserts Amy S. Greenberg, professor of history and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of the new book Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk.

Religious and conservative, Polk didn’t support the suffragists’ campaign; she had no need for what they sought. Polk had leveraged her privileges as a white, wealthy, childless and educated woman to become “the first openly political First Lady, in a period when the role of women was strictly circumscribed,” explains Greenberg, whose book hits shelves amidst a wave of feminist political activism. 131 women were sworn into Congress this January and the race for the Democratic Party nominee for the 2020 presidential election features multiple women candidates.

Read the rest here.

When Women Fought for Suffrage by Disparaging German Immigrants

Carrie_Chapman_Catt_and_Anna_Howard_Shaw_in_1917

Sara Egge, an assistant professor of history at Centre College, reminds us that history is complicated.  Over at Zocalo, Egge shows how some women fighting for the right to vote “saw German men as backward, ignorant, and less worthy of citizenship than themselves.”

Here is a taste:

Nativist fear built into outright hysteria, and Midwestern suffragists began recasting decades of foreign resistance to assimilation as treason. They argued that to protect democracy, only those citizens who understood civic responsibility should vote. By 1917, when the United States entered World War I, suffragists crystallized their message. In South Dakota, propaganda warned of the untrustworthy “alien enemy” while celebrating patriotic suffragists who sacrificed “so deeply for the world struggle.” Another message deemed the “women of America…too noble and too intelligent and too devoted to be slackers” like their German counterparts.

That rhetorical maneuver finally gave woman suffrage the political leverage it needed to achieve victory. In November 1918, voters in South Dakota passed a woman suffrage amendment to the state’s constitution with an impressive 64 percent majority. Of the first 15 states to ratify the 19th Amendment, about half were in the Midwest— a startling shift for a region that had seemed permanently opposed to woman suffrage.

While Shaw’s speech was meant for an audience living in an important historical moment and place, it also resonates today. Suffragists had no qualms about using nativism to open democracy to women. They were willing to skewer immigrants in their decades-long quest for political equality. Shaw’s remarks also remind us how many assumptions Americans have made—in 1914 and today—about the rights and responsibilities that accompany citizenship.

Read the entire piece here.

On the Road With Susan B. Anthony

Susan_B._Anthony_G.E._Perine

A life crusading for women’s rights was not easy.  Over at the website of National Public Radio, Nina Martyris writes about what it is was like for Susan B. Anthony to spend so much time on the road.  Hint: she ate a lot of bad food.

Here is a taste of Martyris’s piece:

The journeys were punishing and the reception, while sometimes warm and encouraging, was often apathetic, sullen or viciously combative. On the eve of the Civil War, when the national mood was fissile, rotten eggs were lobbed at the stage and cayenne pepper flung on the stove to disrupt the meeting. Implacable, Anthony stood her ground. But one can well imagine how much she and her companions longed for a hot meal and a clean bed after these brutal encounters. In most cases, however, they went back to a dirty hotel and terrible food.

“Most of the food served them was green with soda or floating in grease and the hotels were infested with bedbugs,” writes her biographer Alma Lutz in Susan B. Anthony: Rebel, Crusader, Humanitarian. “Susan wrote her family of sleepless nights and of picking the ‘tormentors’ out of their bonnets and the ruffles of their dresses.” One South Dakota hotel served “sour bread, muddy coffee and stewed green grapes.” In others they were faced with unclean water, straw pallets and coffee without cream or milk, sweetened only with sorghum – a good cup of coffee was something Anthony sorely missed, as is evident from a report she filed for a newspaper describing how she “luxuriated in a Christian cup of coffee” in Trinidad, Colo.

“I can assure you that my avoirdupois is being rapidly reduced,”Anthony wrote with characteristic humor in a letter to her family in Rochester, N.Y. Fortunately, she had a robust constitution and weathered the harsh travel conditions mostly without complaint, but a plangent sigh in her diary reflects her frustration: “O, the crimes that are committed in the kitchens of this land!”

Read the entire piece here.

Conference on Faith and History Session: “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History”

BibleEarlier today I chaired a session titled “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History.” It was co-sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Conference on Faith History.

In recent years, several important monographs have been published examining the role of the Bible in American culture and politics.  In 2015, Oxford University Press released Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783, the first book in his projected multi-volume work on the history of the Bible in America.  In 2017, Oxford also published The Bible in American Lifethe culmination of a four-year interdisciplinary study by the Center for the Religion and American Culture at IUPUI.  The study focused on Bible-reading as a religious practice.  Two of today’s panelists–Amy Easton-Flake and Emerson Powery–contributed to this volume.

The editors of The Bible in American Life–Philip Goff, Arthur Farnsely, and Peter Thuesen–write: “According to Gallup, nearly eight in ten Americans regard the Bible as either the literal word of God or as inspired by God.  At the same time, surveys have revealed–and recent books have analyzed–surprising gaps in Americans’ biblical literacy.  These discrepancies reveal American Christians’ complex relationship to Holy Writ, a subject that is widely acknowledged but rarely investigated.”

The panel I chaired today reflected on the history of the Bible in American history with four scholars who have contributed to this ongoing conversation.  I asked each panelist to take a few minutes to describe their ongoing work.

Daniel Dreisbach of American University talked about the challenges–both real and imagined–of writing about the Bible’s contributions to the American founding.  He is interested in the question whether the Bible’s contributions are sufficiently significant that it merits mention alongside other intellectual influences on the founding, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism (in various forms), and classical and civic republicanism.  He also addressed criticism that some of his work has been used by the defenders of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

James Byrd of Vanderbilt Divinity School focused on the relationship between his book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution and his current book project, “The Bible and the American Civil War.”  Byrd is particularly interested in the ways the Bible was used to justify and explain war.

Amy Easton-Flake of Brigham Young University spoke on women’s deployment of the Bible in late nineteenth-century America.  She used three case examples: the portrayal of Latter-Day Saint women in the journal Women’s Exponent, Harriett Beecher-Stowe’s portrayal of biblical women in her Women and Sacred History, and the Suffrage Movement’s use of the Bible in Revolution and Women’s Journal.

Emerson Powery, my colleague at Messiah College, offered a few thoughts on the integral use of the Bible in arguments surrounding slavery during the antebellum period, especially from the perspective of those whose bodies were most affected.  His way into this discussion was through the voice of the formerly enslaved though the so-called “slave narrative.”

It was a lively session.  I encourage you to explore this subject further by reading the books and articles of these panelists:

Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers

Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible in the American Revolution

Easton-Flake: Mormon Women’s History: Beyond Biography

Powery, The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved

Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society

Was Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life?

According to this Saturday Night Live sketch, Susan B. Anthony believed “abortion is murder.”

But historian Daniel K. Williams, author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wadewarns pro-life and pro-choice advocates to think twice before invoking Anthony.

Here is a taste of his First Things piece “Susan B. Anthony’s Contested Legacy“:

Pro-lifers’ appropriation of Susan B. Anthony has resulted in a distortion of historical facts. Claiming Anthony for either side in the modern abortion debate is highly anachronistic. As a historian, I think that it’s important to understand the past on its own terms without trying to make figures from the past fit the contours of modern debates. Efforts to try to make Susan B. Anthony fit the mold of a modern pro-lifer are certainly misguided.

At the same time, I think it may be worth citing the late-nineteenth-century feminists in order to question modern pro-choice feminists’ insistence that reproductive rights are an essential, nonnegotiable part of feminism. If Anthony and her late-nineteenth-century feminist colleagues were not pro-life activists, they were not advocates of abortion rights or sexual license, either.

Read the entire piece here.

You can also listen to Williams discuss Defenders of the Unborn in Episode 2 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

A Tale of Three Protests

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This could be the first weekend of the Trump administration in which the country has not experienced a major protest march of one form or another.  As I write this on Saturday morning, the weekend is still young.  But I doubt that we will let our impulse for social reform get in the way of the Super Bowl.  After all, this is the United States. 🙂

All of these protests–the Women’s March, the March for Life, and the spontaneous gatherings in American airports to protest Trump’s immigration ban–all had one thing in common.  They were, in one way or another, defenses of human dignity.  In this sense, they were inextricably linked. A recent post by a immigration lawyers Melbourne team have illustrated this quite well, it’s worth a look.

Protests and marches of this nature have a long history in the United States.  Think about the Stamp Act Riots, the Boston Tea Party, the Whiskey Rebellion, the New York City Draft Riots, women’s suffrage parades and marches, the Bonus Army, the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam Movement, Stonewall, labor protests, the movement to stop globalization, the Million Man March, the present-day Tea Party Movement, and Occupy Wall Street.  (And this list only scratches the surface).  We can debate to what extent these historic protests brought real social change, but we cannot argue with the fact that such activity is part of the American tradition of free speech, freedom of assembly, and the defense of human rights and dignity.

The American protest tradition was at its best on Saturday, January 21, 2017, one day after Trump was inaugurated, when women took to the streets in major and minor cities all over the United States.  On the Monday following the women’s march, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that “a lot of these people were there to protest an issue of concern to them and [were] not against anything.”  I realize that Spicer’s job is to spin events in favor of Donald Trump, but anyone who attended one of these rallies or watched the coverage on television knows that the people present that day were “against” something.  They were against the Trump presidency.  The day was a stunning rebuke to the new administration.

Spicer, however, is correct when he says that women (and some men) came to Washington for a host of different reasons.  As I watched the march unfold on my television screen, it became clear that the movement lacked any focus beyond the fact that everyone opposed Donald Trump.  People were there to unleash their frustrations. Only time will tell if the march translates into real political gain. I have my doubts.

I was saddened to see the organizers of the Women’s March try to separate themselves from women who opposed abortion.  I think it was a missed opportunity to find common ground and show that Trump’s degradation of women transcends the debate over abortion.  I know pro-life women who attended and felt a sense of solidarity.  I also know many who did not attend and who were troubled by this kind of exclusion.

Which leads us to the March for Life on January 28, 2017.

The Pro-Life Movement has a long history in the United States.  As Daniel K. Williams has argued in his excellent book Defenders of the Unborn (you can listen to our podcast interview with him here-Episode 2), the movement was once embedded within the Democratic Party.  Liberals such as Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, Bill Clinton, Paul Simon, Dick Durbin, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Herbert Humphrey,  Joe Biden, Ed Muskie, Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, Bob Casey, Daniel Berrigan, Jimmy Carter, Thomas Eagleton, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, and Mario Cuomo were pro-life politicians.  Many of them, as David Swartz notes in his book Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, “flipped to a pro-choice position under party pressure.”

The history of this so-called “flip” is complicated and I would recommend reading Williams’s book (or listen to our interview with him) to understand it in context.  But I think it is fair to say that Democrats of a previous generation saw very little tension between their political convictions and their opposition to abortion.  Democrats have always been concerned about protecting the most vulnerable human beings in American society. This is a core tenet of the modern Democratic Party.

Back in September 2015 I turned to the pages of USA Today  to challenge then presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to say something about reducing abortions in America.  I wrote: “aborted fetuses are alive, they are vulnerable and they need protection.”  I did something similar, albeit in a more indirect way, in a piece I published in the Harrisburg Partiot-News about Hillary Clinton’s failure to reach out to evangelicals on the issue of abortion.

Democrats and Republicans, men and women, convened in Washington  to march for life. The march was not as large as the Women’s March the week before, but it was just as powerful. Bishop Vincent Matthews Jr., a bishop in the largest Black denomination in the United States, was perhaps the most inspiring speaker.  As I wrote about last week, his speech connected the pro-life movement to the Black Lives Matter movement. Jesse Jackson could have delivered the same speech in 1977.  In that year, as Williams notes in Defenders of the Unborn (p.171), Jackson wrote an article for Life News linking his opposition to abortion to his defense of social justice, poverty, and black personhood.

My only critique of the event was the way it politicized a great social sin.  The problems with abortion should be addressed in an apolitical way.  The Pro-Life Movement transcends Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Kellyanne Conway, and the Republican Party. Speeches by Conway and Pence gave the march a political flavor that distracted from the day’s message.

Finally, protest swirled on Sunday, January 29, 2017 in the wake of Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigration to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries.  Americans arrived at airports by the thousands to defend the human rights of immigrants and refugees who were detained by the Trump administration. They also cried out against the targeting of immigrants from a specific religious group.

The constitutionality of Trump’s executive order can be debated.  After doing a little reading it appears that certain parts of the order seem to be OK.  But after reading it a few times there seems to be no way around the fact that this order discriminates based on religion.  We will need to let the courts decide if such discrimination in cases of immigration is indeed unconstitutional.

Section 5b reads:

Upon the resumption of USRAP admissions, the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.  Where necessary and appropriate, the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security shall recommend legislation to the President that would assist with such prioritization.

The order states that “minority religions” in these Muslim countries will get priority.  How can this be read as anything but an attempt by Trump (and probably Steve Bannon) to favor Christians (and other non-Muslim faiths) and discriminate against Muslims?

America has been here before.

In 1835, Samuel F.B. Morse, best known in American history for inventing the telegraph, was one of the nation’s foremost opponents of Catholic immigration.  He saw Catholics as a threat to American democracy and wrote about them as both a political and religious movement. In 1911, the Asiatic Exclusion League, an organization with a mission to deny all Asian immigrants access to the United States, described Asians as a people whose “ways are not as our ways” and whose “gods are not our God, and never will be.”  The members of the League argued that Asian men and women “profane this Christian land by erecting here among us their pagan shrines, set up their idols and practice their shocking heathen religious ceremonies.”

The difference between Donald Trump and Morse, the Asiatic Exclusion League, and other attempts in U.S. history to restrict immigration, is that Donald Trump is the President of the United States.  I am not a scholar of immigration history (although I do occasionally teach a class on the subject), but I cannot think of another case in which a POTUS tried to overtly stop immigrants to the United States based on their religious faith.  Some Presidents may have secretly wanted to do this, but they never acted on it in the way that Donald Trump has done.  The closest thing I can think of is the government’s decision in 1939 to turn away 937 European Jews fleeing the Holocaust, but this decision was not overtly framed in a religious way. (I welcome anyone who can think of an example of a POTUS doing this).

American immigration and refugee policy has always been at its best when it respects the human dignity of all men and women, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.  Those who flooded American airports last Sunday were protesting the failure of the Trump administration to live up to these ideals.

Three protest marches.  Three defenses of human dignity.  Three signs of hope in an imperfect world and an imperfect country.

Americans Went to the Polls Yesterday and Chose the Nation’s First Female President

Hillary nominatedShe just didn’t get elected.

Trump secured more Electoral College votes and thus won the election.  (Technically, he needs to wait until the Electoral College votes on December 19, 2016.  By the way, there is such a thing as a “faithless elector“–just saying).

But it looks like Hillary Clinton will win the popular vote.

This has happened four other times in American history: 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000.

This is what I was talking about in Episode 13 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast when I said that it was actually the Founding Fathers who were the first politicians to “undermine our democracy.”

Or as my friend Paul Harvey put it:

 

Anti-Suffrage Records Digitized

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As the centennial of the ratification of the 19th amendment approaches (2020) more and more students of history are going to want to learn about the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.

“The Beehive,” the blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, reports on the Society’s online collection of documents from the The Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women (1894-1920).  Yes, there were organizations opposed to women’s suffrage.

Here is a taste of Nancy Heywood’s post:

The records of this organization are now fully digitized and available on the web, thanks to a grant provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act grant as administered by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

All pages of this manuscript collection have been digitized and they are presented as sequences of pages linked to the folders listed on the collection guide.  Website users may explore any or all administrative records, committee meeting minutes, typescripts of lectures and reports, and various printed items including by-laws,  and printed lists of standing committee members from all over the state.

The records date from 1894 to1920.  The Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women was formally founded in 1895, but stemmed from a committee formed in 1882.  The Association actively recruited members, opposed legislation that would have granted voting rights to women in Massachusetts, and also held events and lectures promoting their cause. 

Women working so actively against voting rights for women seems curious and perhaps even incongruous.  Some of the reasoning and context for their motivation is found within the organization’s own records. Within the Loose papers, Legislative history section, there is a typescript document of a speech given at a hearing before committee on constitutional amendments in Feb. 1905 which states four reasons for opposing woman suffrage:  many women in Massachusetts don’t petition for it, Massachusetts wouldn’t benefit from it; it is a “most inopportune” time to change the Constitution, and suffrage hasn’t proven to be beneficial elsewhere.

Women Could Not Vote in 1872, But They Could Run for President and Have Visions

woodhull

Victoria Woodhull ran for President of the United States in 1872 as the nominee of the Equal Rights Party.  Frederick Douglass was her running mate although it is not clear if he ever agreed to serve in the position.

Woodhull was on the ballot in twenty-two states and, as  Jessa Crispin points out in her recent piece in The Baffler, she did not receive any electoral votes.  But she was a fascinating presidential candidate nonetheless.  In addition to being a female candidate for the highest office in the county in a political world dominated by men, Woodhull worked as a clairvoyant and was an adherent of Spiritualism.

Here is a taste of Crispin’s piece:

When Victoria was fifteen, she married Canning Woodhull, and by the time she left him after ten years of marriage, her radicalization was well under way. Taking Woodhull’s name, their two children, and not much else, she did what she had to do to survive, as the saying goes. Sometimes that was telling fortunes. Other times, that was working as a prostitute. And as she established herself in the arena of social reform, that was writing radical tracts about the importance of education for girls and women, labor rights, and family planning.

Under the circumstances, trying to raise a mob of women willing to fight and die for their rights was even harder than raising spirits. Defying fathers and husbands meant defying God himself. (Woodhull was freer than most from the Calvinist hold. Neither her visionary mother nor her criminal father could be described as God-fearing.) Though women like Mary Greeley—the wife of New York Tribune founder, anti-women’s-suffrage campaigner, and future presidential hopeful Horace Greeley—would go on to become important allies, for the time being they were stuck. Greeley was pregnant again and again, and five of her seven children died young.

Spiritualism offered people a different story about both life and death. Those dead children were not in hell; they were still within reach. They could be communicated with. Perhaps more important, Spiritualism got rid of sin. In the Spiritualist world, there was no “fall” of mankind, and it certainly wasn’t orchestrated by Eve. Preachers had been using that old story since the beginning of the church to express the devious nature of woman and warn against their rebellious, destructive ways.

Determinism was another target. In Calvinism, everything is already decided; you are marked from birth with damnation or salvation. What, then, is the use of trying? Everything, including your own suffering, is God’s will. The Spiritualists replaced this idea with the concept of spiritual evolution. The more you progressed as an individual, the higher into the spheres of heaven you could ascend. That progression depended on your behavior here on earth, on how you treated your fellow man and woman. That was something worth fighting for. Spiritualism, in the words ofRadical Spirits author Ann Braude, “presented an extreme case of the rejection of Calvinism that pervaded women’s culture” at the time.

Read the entire piece here.

Want to read more about Woodhull?  I recommend Amanda Frisken’s Victoria Woodhull’s Sexual Revolution: Political Theater and the Popular Press in Nineteenth-Century America .

 

Ana Stevenson: Dispatches from the Poster Session

We are happy to have Ana Stevenson writing for us this weekend from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.  Stevenson is a visiting scholar in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh. Here is her first post–JF

Ana Stevenson.jpg-large

Today marked the exciting beginning and conclusion, which came all too soon, of the poster sessions for #aha16. Across the day, there were three sessions which revealed a range of historical research topics, from the medieval Ottoman empire to the history of food and Arizona’s suburban retail landscape during the 1970s and 1980s.

Many of the posters prioritized imagery and even used material culture to engage people in their discussion.

Various posters pivoted their research around historical maps and cartography. Jamie Mize’s (UNC at Greensboro) presentation, “Contested Cherokee Gender in the Early Nineteenth Century,” arranged its entire discussion around a detailed map. In contrast, “The Historical Map as a Geodatabase: Creating a Geographic Information System (GIS) from a Data-Rich Seventeenth-Century Map,” by Nicholas Gliserman (University of Southern California), matched one particular historical map to a contemporary map of the same region.

Other posters looked toward historical images that had circulated in the popular culture of social movements. In “Lives Abroad in Romantic Interest: Debate over Marriage in the American Woman Suffrage Movement,” Jessica Derleth (Binghamton University, SUNY) used postcards to depict antisuffragists’ fears about the way women’s suffrage would negatively transform the institution of marriage. My own poster, “The Transnational Visual Culture of Women’s Suffrage in the United States and Australia,” used pro-suffrage cartoons to discuss previously overlooked parallels across the Pacific.

Particularly fascinating was the use of material culture to accompany the poster. Lisa Munro’s presentation, “Indigenous Textiles and the Construction of Popular Ethnographic Memory in 1930s Guatemala,” was accompanied by some beautiful Guatemalan textiles.

Following an enduring theme at the conference more broadly, a number of posters engaged with digital humanities methods. The aforementioned poster by Gliserman signalled the beginning of a project hoping to collate many colonial maps together in a larger geodatabase.

Other digitally-informed projects included: “‘Commentaries’ in Migration: A Digital Humanities Examination of Literature, Law, and Practices across National and Chronological Borders,” by John Nathan Blanton (CUNY Graduate Centre), Micki Kaurman (MLA), and Nora Slonimsky (SUNY Graduate Centre); and “Commonwealth Slavery: Digital Studies in the History of Slavery at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities,” by Susan Perdue, William B. Kurtz, Laura K. Baker, and Brendan Wolfe (Virginia Foundation for the Humanities).

Unfortunately, as a participant, I was only able to get a selection of photographs from the poster session, but do check the twitter feed #AHAposter to see some others. And if you’re thinking about making a historical research poster in future, check out the wonderful AHA resource, Effective Poster Presentations.

For those who managed to drop into the poster sessions, make sure you vote for your favorite poster by tweeting #AHAposter!

What David Barton Really Said About Women and Voting

Everyone seems to be ripping on David Barton today.  They are claiming that he said that women’s suffrage is somehow bad for the country.  Here are some of the headlines:

“David Barton: Allowing women to vote “hurts the entire culture and society.”

“Barton: Denying Women’s Suffrage Protects the Family”

“David Barton: Women Weren’t Allowed to Vote in Order to Preserve the Family.”

Most people who read this blog know that I have been very critical of Barton.  In fact, I could probably write something critical about David Barton every day on this blog and see my readership double.

Here is the clip that is circulating on left-wing websites:

I just listened to the entire episode of the May 1, 2014 “Wallbuilders Live.” This is the episode in which Barton apparently said that women’s suffrage was a bad thing.  There is a lot that is familiar in this episode.  As usual, Barton and his co-host Rick Green take their shots at the way history is taught in “government schools” (a slap in the face to all history teachers in public schools who are doing a wonderful job). They also continue to use the story of the American past to promote their political agenda in the present.  I have warned against this approach to history in both Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Barton, of course, represents the Christian Right, but as this most recent incident shows, the Left is not immune from this kind of cherry picking and manipulation of evidence to promote their own political agenda.

Perhaps all of those historians (yes, some legitimate historians have jumped on the bandwagon) and pundits should listen to the entire Wallbuilders Live episode before hitting social media to skewer Barton for saying that women’s suffrage was a bad thing.  If you listen to the entire context of this discussion of women’s suffrage, you will notice several things:

1.  Nowhere in this episode does Barton say the 19th amendment was a bad thing or that women voting is a bad thing.  Listen for yourself.  Some might say he is implying this.  If someone wants to make this argument, it is a stretch.

2.  The clip I posted above has been edited.  The part of the discussion in which Barton and Green seem to suggest that women’s suffrage is a positive development in American life has been cut out.

3.  Barton’s culture war rhetoric often gets in the way of his historical assertions, but he is right about the way New Englanders understood the family.  It was patriarchal in nature and, as Edmund Morgan has argued, it was at the heart of New England Puritan life.  Barton believes that this kind of patriarchy should characterize families today.  But I am not sure his belief on this front is as newsworthy as the Right Wing watchdog websites make it out to be.  Millions of evangelicals embrace what is often called a “complementarian” position on marriage and support the right of women to vote.  In fact, if I remember my women’s history correctly, many 19th-century women’s suffragists held what today might be described as a “complementarian” position on marriage.  (Historians of American women–please correct me if I am wrong here).  While some might find this a reprehensible position, and I am not endorsing it here, the fact that Barton is calling for a kind of soft-complementarianism (he distinguishes it from the “tyranny” of the 17th-century Puritan father) is not really news.

4.  Barton is correct when he suggests that divorce was difficult in early America, although I do not know if one had to appeal to the legislature in order to get one.  (Can someone help me with this one?). On more contemporary matters, he is also correct that no-fault divorce has led to a rise in American divorces and divided families.  I think many conservatives and liberals think this is a problem in our culture.  Moreover, Barton’s concern about the traditional family unit is not some kind of anti-intellectual rant.  Christopher Lasch, writing from a neo-Marxist perspective, defended the traditional family (although not necessary a patriarchal family) against that rise of individualism and consumer capitalism in 1977 with the publication of Haven in the Heartless World; The Family Besieged.  

4.  Barton is correct to suggest that voting in early America was often directly related to the ownership of property.  This, as he mentions several times, is why a few women could vote in some colonies and in early national New Jersey.  Barton’s never said that this was a good thing or a bad thing.

5. Barton says that some property-owning women could vote in 17th-century New England.  This is true, but these were exceptions to the rule and very rare.

6.  The idea that single property-owning women somehow represented a “family unit,” as Barton suggests, is overstated.  If some of the single property-owning women at Salem were considered a true Puritan “family” they probably would not have been accused of witchcraft.  At least this is what I learned in graduate school from reading Carol Karlsen.

7.  The original question asked of Barton (by a caller named Britton) was whether or not the founding fathers were “sexist” for not letting women vote.  While “sexist” is not an eighteenth-century term, the members of nearly all early state legislatures believed that women should not have the right to vote. Were there some exceptions?  Yes.  But to say that the founders and early framers of state constitutions made deliberate attempts to grant suffrage to women is not accurate.

In the end, Barton is trying to defend the Founders against charges that they were sexist.  (And he is once again very wrong on this front).  He is not trying to say that the 19th amendment was a bad thing. Of course we never heard the question that was asked because the edited clip making its way around the Internet is taken out of context.

Barton’s words have been twisted here. Does Barton believe that the 19th amendment was a bad thing? I have no idea.  Did he make this claim in the May 1, 2014 episode of Wallbuilders Live?  I didn’t hear it.

Indeed, those on the Left can also play fast and lose with the record.

I am guessing I am going to get hit hard from some of you.  Please fire away…  The comment section is open.