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Stirring, Engrossing 'Woman's Hour' Recounts The Battle For Suffrage

We tend to forget how near a thing it was, how outlandish an idea it seemed to some at the time, this concept of women gaining access to the ballot box. In one of history's great thrillers, the battle to ratify the 19th Amendment, almost a hundred years ago, came down to single vote, a single male legislator and — crucially — a single dear, darling, determined mother. And maybe we haven't come such a long way, baby: Recently, a GOP precinct chair from Utah described giving women the vote as a "grave mistake."

So it's bracing to read Elaine Weiss's stirring, definitive, and engrossing treatment of winning suffrage in America, The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. Weiss brings a lucid, lively, journalistic tone to the story. Perhaps her greatest contribution is documenting the intricate, contentious element of racism that almost crippled the struggle. For that insight alone, The Woman's Hour is compulsory reading. In America, as we need to be reminded over and over, it's always about race.

One surprise is Weiss's insistence that this was a war largely of women against women. The country's very own War of the Roses transpired during this period, with symbolic weaponry of red roses for the anti-suffragists and, for the suffragists, yellow ones. Both sides decorated themselves with color-coded blooms, and energetically pinned their politically significant roses to the lapels of legislators they wanted to win over. The yellow "Suffs" opposed the red "Antis," and the nation's florists prospered.

Weiss's narrative begins on a Saturday evening in mid-July 1920, with two very different women converging on Nashville, Tenn. In one corner stood the strong and savvy Carrie Chapman Catt of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In the opposite corner was Josephine Anderson Pearson of the Tennessee Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage.

Weiss brings a lucid, lively, journalistic tone to the story. Perhaps her greatest contribution is documenting the intricate, contentious element of racism that almost crippled the struggle.

Both were heavily invested in the question of whether the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution would become a reality, 28 words that would change history: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." We were late to the game: Countries all over the world had already given women the right to vote.

After seven decades of struggle, why was everything riding on what happened in Nashville? 36 states needed to approve the amendment, and 35 had said yes. "If the Tennessee legislature ratified the Nineteenth Amendment," writes Weiss, "woman suffrage would become the law of the land and twenty-seven million women would be able to vote, just in time for the fall presidential elections; if the legislature rejected it, the amendment might never be enacted. It all came down to Tennessee."

The Antis, strongest in the South, interpreted the fight over suffrage as a continuation of the Civil War. They maligned suffrage not only because they believed women's place was in the home, but also due to the racist belief that the 19th Amendment would open the floodgates on black power. Suffragists would no doubt vote Republican, and the South was solidly Democratic. To the specter of a black man voting would be added that of a black woman doing the same.

Weiss also teases out an additional important division of the day, between the Wet and the Dry factions, with the liquor industry convinced that the pro-temperance Suffs would vote for Prohibition and shut them down. On the eighth floor of Nashville's venerable Hermitage hotel, the Antis greased the gullets of legislators with free whiskey in a room that came to be known as the "Jack Daniels Suite."

But there were also husbands and brothers and fathers at the side of the Suffs, cheering them on, as well as male legislators and politicians who helped secure the vote by urging their colleagues to join them in the fight. The Woman's Hour recounts the famous story of freshman delegate Harry Burn, from the East Tennessee hill town of Niota, who wore a red Anti rose throughout the ratification debate. But when it came down to a crucial vote during the last roll call, he took a letter from his pocket and re-read it: "Hurrah and vote for suffrage and don't keep them in doubt ... Don't forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt ... With lots of love, Mama.

On August 26, 1920, and only after much hemming and hawing and soul-searching, good boy Harry threw his vote to the Suffs, and the 19th Amendment became enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. The Woman's Hour demonstrates whys and hows of that epochal transition. Every election is woman's hour now.

Jean Zimmerman's latest novel, Savage Girl, is out now in paperback. She posts daily atBlog Cabin.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jean Zimmerman