In ‘The Woman’s Hour,’ the Battle Over the 19th Amendment Comes to Life

In ‘The Woman’s Hour,’ the Battle Over the 19th Amendment Comes to Life


After Congress failed to act on the federal suffrage amendment, Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party went after President Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats in 1916.

Library of Congress

The Last Furious Fight to Win the Vote
By Elaine Weiss
Illustrated. 404 pp. Viking. $28.

It’s probably inappropriate to evaluate a work of history on the basis of how many novels can be extracted from its pages; it’s also, if one is a novelist, irresistible. Which real-life situations and characters are so intriguing that they’d be worthy of delving into and depicting in the truly intimate manner that only fiction allows? By this measure — and by several others — “The Woman’s Hour: The Last Furious Fight to Win the Vote,” by the journalist Elaine Weiss, is a gold mine.

After Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919, ratification needed to occur in 36 states for women’s right to vote to become federal law. By July 1920, the possible 36th state — or the place where the amendment would die after 70 years of strenuous activism — was Tennessee. Thus, for several weeks that summer, in and around Nashville’s statehouse, a frenetic pageant of political organizing, lobbying, demonstrating and double-crossing unfolded among the “Antis,” who opposed the amendment, and the “Suffs,” or suffragists, who supported it. As one legislator declared, “The entire world today has cast its eyes on Tennessee.”

Weiss presents a panoramic view of the proceedings, which are alternately juicy (accusations of libel and bribery abounded, and, in spite of Prohibition, the whiskey and bourbon were free-flowing) and procedural. Weiss also provides national and international context: World War I had ended less than two years earlier, and both the war and its aftermath had jumbled established norms of gender, race and employment. In the United States, a physically ailing Woodrow Wilson occupied the White House, and two Ohioans, Warren Harding and James Cox, were vying to replace him, which raised the stakes of the 19th Amendment’s passage: Though women in some states could already vote, it was unclear how enfranchising all 27 million American women in time for the fall’s presidential election would influence national politics.

In addition to offering contemporaneous perspective, Weiss goes back several decades to the roots of the women’s movement and the efforts of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others. Weiss celebrates their persistence and courage but does not sugarcoat their racism. Despite early unity with abolitionists, upper-middle-class white women willing to sacrifice racial equality for gender equality is nothing new. During the ratification in Nashville, Carrie Catt, the New York-based president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the successor to Susan B. Anthony, made calculated decisions to distance her groups’ interests from those of black men and women. After all, much of the Anti reluctance to grant women the vote was tied up with not wanting black women to vote.


A poster from the 1917 New York woman suffrage referendum campaign.

New York State Library

Weiss details the tribalism within the women’s movement as personified by Catt and the more militant and provocative Alice Paul, who led the National Woman’s Party. Though Paul was short on money and didn’t travel to Nashville for the special session, she dispatched the native Tennessean Sue Shelton White, an activist who could, with her very accent, dispel accusations about meddling outsiders. Weiss depicts another native daughter of Tennessee, this one a committed Anti: Josephine Pearson, who presided over multiple Anti groups and believed that in fighting against ratification, she was obeying both God and her deceased mother.

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