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Suffrage, by Ellen du Bois.

October 5, 2019

Suffrage: Women’s Long Struggle for the Vote, by Ellen du Bois.  Simon and Schuster, 2020


5 stars

A comprehensive account of the movement for women’s suffrage from its beginnings in the abolitionist movement, through its post-Civil War divisions to its eventual success, written for a general audience by  the major scholar of the topic.

Ellen du Bois is a retired professor of History and Gender Studies at UCLA.  Since the rise of Women’s History in the 1970s and 1980s, she has focused her research on various elements of the US movement for women’s suffrage.  Her new book summarizes some of that work.  She has also edited collections of documents by women from different eras for students.  Significantly one of the document readers, Unequal Sisters, edited with Vickie Ruiz, features writings by a variety of those whose race and class have interfered with their inclusion into traditional history.   As she states in her introduction, DuBois initially planned Suffrage as part of celebration 100 years of women’s national ability to vote in all elections.  She admits she also expected to celebrate the first female president.  Perhaps her book is even more relevant today as we experience a renewed wave of white supremacy and attacks on women who dare to take their place in politics.

DuBois is an excellent writer.  Without giving up documentation, she writes with energy and grace for non-academic readers of various ages and interests. Du Boris’s new book is encyclopedic; a place to start on any person or event connected to women’s suffrage. The suffrage movement spanned from 1848 to 1920, much of action took place at the state rather than the national level. Women of widely divergent backgrounds, styles, and attitudes contributed.  DuBois is committed to conveying the variety of the movement as well as the contexts which often drove women to act as they did. Numerous women receive brief but informative descriptions that allow them to be seen as individuals.  Despite their divisions, she seeks to present all factions fairly.

The first section of DuBois’s new book retells the hopeful story of Seneca Falls and the first stages of women’s rights movement down to the Civil War.  We learn about the women who became leaders, their abolitionist connections and the overall political context.  After the Civil War, the story becomes less hopeful as former allies got polarized into those who prioritize the vote of the black man and those who sought universal suffrage.  The men leading the Republican Party rejected the fight for “universal suffrage.  Some women suffrage advocates follow their lead. Others make dubious alliances for support of women’s vote.  Deep divisions between the two movements develop that would fester down to the victory of suffrage in 1920.  While some suffragists based their struggle on need for justice to women, others argued that men needed women’s votes to achieve their own goals.

For modern scholars, the racism and nativism of some women suffrage leaders is hard to accept.  DuBois does not excuse or deny such views.  She explains the real frustration some women felt at a government in which “inferior” black and immigrant men participated, but not themselves.  Not shying away from the racism of the white women, DuBois chronicles how black and immigrant women were explicitly excluded from parades and rallies.  On the more positive side, she also gives a full account of African American and working-class women who did contribute important work for suffrage.  As she tells the story, changing definitions of gender were tightly interwoven with attempted changes in how Americans thought about race.

Quite simply, DuBois shows how women never were the unified voting block that they hoped and claimed to be.  Dubois has given us an example of the problems when we refuse to stand together.

This is an important book that needs to be read widely if we are to avoid divisions and mistakes of the past.

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