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November 15, 2019

Conversation with Elaine Weiss, author of The Woman’s Hour

Interview Transcript


HOWARD KAPLAN:  Yes hi, is this Elaine Weiss? This is Howard Kaplan.

ELAINE WEISS:  Yes, hi Howard.

HOWARD KAPLAN:  So my first question is what was the genesis of the book and the subject matter? How did it come about for you to write The Woman’s Hour?

ELAINE WEISS:  Well, the genesis of the book and the whole idea of writing about the suffrage movement really came about because I had written a book about women in World War I. That was my previous book. And the suffragists figured in that book because they were trying to prove their citizenship and patriotism during World War I, and so they pop up a lot in that first book.

But it was mostly the fact that I am a voter. I was raised to be a voter in every election. I have taught my children that. I think it’s extremely important. And at some point in thinking about the suffragists from my first book, I realized that I did not know how I as an American woman had the right to vote. When, at one point in our national history I didn’t have that right, and at another I did. In my lifetime I did. But in fact, in my grandmother’s lifetime, she did not until she was really an adult. So I began to think about this, that I didn’t know the story. And I asked some of my friends who are very well-educated, well-read, people, and I said, well, do you know how American women got the vote? And they didn’t know either, and they didn’t know the dates and they didn’t know how it happened.

I looked at a few survey history books. It usually is one line. In 1848 women gathered for a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls and then in the 1920s they were granted the vote. And there’s not much in between. And it’s not to say there isn’t superb and a great volume of academic work on this, scholarship, excellent, excellent scholarship that’s been going on for decades. But it hasn’t, I don’t believe, filtered into the public realm. When I realized that my friends and I did not know this story, such an important story, I realized that there was a gap and there was something I wanted to explore personally but also I thought needed to be told to the general public. And that was what propelled me to think about writing about suffrage, but I didn’t want to write a comprehensive history or a story, a survey of the entire movement.

And I came across in a report in the Library of Congress, a report on how a bequest to the suffrage movement was spent. And it was a very detailed 100-page report, and towards the end it talked about the ratification effort and I hadn’t even thought about that. Somehow, again, lack of knowledge of the constitutional process, I thought well, once Congress passes it, it must be done. And then realizing the fight that ensued for another year and a half to get it ratified. And in this report, it explained the intensity of the fight for the last state to ratify, and that happened to be Tennessee. And it’s a wild story and when I read that, I just said, wow, that is quite a story.

And what my job then was to try to see how could I take that one very dramatic moment and expand it and deepen it into the story of the movement. And so what’s what I tried to do. I tried to tell this dramatic story and take the reader along, and in the process, because the characters who are there, the scenes that arise from this fight, I can tell the whole story of the movement and what it took over seven decades to change the Constitution.

HOWARD KAPLAN:  Thank you. All right, so let me ask you about the title of the book and what its source’s significance is? And maybe you can answer that not just about the main title, “The Woman’s Hour,” but also about the subtitle, “The Great Fight to Win the Vote”?

ELAINE WEISS:  Sure. The title, “The Women’s Hour”, comes from historical reference, and it comes from two points in history. The first is the women’s suffrage movement actually arises out of the abolition movement. And the women we know, the mothers of the movement shall we say, Stanton, and Anthony and Lucretia Mott, are all abolition workers before they become suffrage workers. And it comes out of the same philosophy of all people being inherently equal, and that would mean the end of slavery and would also mean enfranchisement of black citizens and white women citizens, all of whom had been previously left out of voting rights. So they believed, the suffrages/abolitionists truly believed that, after the Civil War, universal suffrage will be the law of the land, and they are bitterly disappointed when they are told that, no, politically that is not possible. That, in fact, the nation can’t handle two big reforms at once. And one of them will have to wait, and it’s going to be the woman’s vote. And again, we see this throughout our history where political realities come to blows with what we might think of as democratic ideals. So the women are again, angry, feel betrayed, and Frederick Douglass, who is the great, great universal suffragist, he is there at Seneca Falls, advocating for, demanding the vote.

The women suffragists, abolitionists, are told that in fact Congress is not going to consider giving women the vote. The nation cannot handle two great reforms at once. And William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist leader, and Frederick Douglass, try to explain this to the women who are very, very angry. And say, “The woman’s hour has not come. This is the Negro’s Hour.” And because black men need the vote for their very lives, because there is terrible violence in Reconstruction era against black men, and they need it for their lives, and so the woman’s hour will have to wait. It will come, we promise, but it has to wait. And that becomes what they have to accept as a political reality.

Some decades later, in 1916, when the federal amendment, which has been stalled in Congress for almost 40 years at that point, finally begins to get some traction and it begins the last push to get the constitutional amendment through Congress, Carrie Chapman Catt who is the leader of the mainstream suffragists stands up and declares that the woman’s hour has struck. The woman’s hour is now arrived. And she rallies the tired and dispirited suffragists to make one last incredible push to get it through Congress and then to get it ratified by the states, by saying, yes, indeed, this is the woman’s hour.

And so, I use her call to imagine the woman’s hour and to work for the woman’s hour as the epigram of the book. So that is the origin of the title. It has great historical resonance in two pivotal moments of the history of the movement, and the history of the nation. “The great fight to win the vote” [the subtitle] tries to evoke just what it took. It was not easy, it was not simple, it was not quick.  From the time of Seneca Falls in 1848, and again, there’d been talk of women voting for decades and decades before that. So that is just used as a marker. It’s probably not the most accurate marker, but it gives the first official public call for the vote at that meeting. And, by the way, the people of Seneca Falls, those who participated, were very nervous about that. They thought they were going too far to ask for women’s enfranchisement. So this idea that it took seven decades, that it took three generations of activists, that it took 900 campaigns at the state, local, and national level to finally secure what one would think would be an inherent right in a democracy. So, I wanted to get that sense of a great fight. This was a great fight. It was not the last fight. Because as we know it would take decades more for black men and women who legally under the Constitution had the right to vote but those rights had been subverted by Jim Crow laws. So it was not implemented correctly or faithfully, but it was again, a great fight, if not the last fight.

HOWARD KAPLAN:  So you open the book with three women on trains heading for Nashville: Carrie Chapman Catt, Josephine Pearson and Sue Shelton White. Why those three? Why are they important to your story?

ELAINE WEISS:  Well, it was a great gift to any writer to find that these three women were there, and in fact, they arrived on the same night. So, I could have that scene of them on the trains, because that is all documented. Carrie Chapman Catt, leader of the mainstream suffragists, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association; Sue Shelton White, a young activist from Tennessee who had belonged to the mainstream organization but had left it to join the more radical National Women’s Party, Alice Paul’s wing of the suffrage movement. And she is sent home [to Tennessee] by Alice Paul to run the ratification campaign for the Women’s Party. And that same night, arriving at Union Station Nashville is Josephine Anderson Pearson, who is the leader of the Tennessee Anti-Suffragists, the women opposed to giving the vote to American women. And they are the leaders of three different factions of women who will be working for the next six weeks to either advance ratification, fight for ratification, lobby for ratification, or on the other side, try to thwart ratification. And the reasons that each of them are there and the reasons each of them are working on their own tracks, is part of the underpinning of the book—that these are women with very different ideas.

The anti-suffragists are not as concerned about equality. They are concerned about maintaining women’s status quo in society. So this whole book, this whole movement, this whole fight, is not only a constitutional change, a legal change, although that is the crux and the heart of the book, but it’s also a debate about women’s role in society. And so that is what makes it so passionate and so complicated. And those three women represent those different aspects of that fight. Josephine Pearson fighting very passionately to make sure that women are not thrust into the muck of politics that Southern chivalry, men taking care of their women, is preserved, and also that white supremacy is preserved.

The racial aspects of this story are very strong. So I was very fortunate this time that these three women were all there and I could tell not only what was happening in that Nashville during those six weeks, and it is quite a suspenseful and dramatic story, but because of who these women are, I can reach back and tell the broader story. Carrie Chapman Catt is the protégé of Susan Anthony and that allows me to tell the story from decades before. And Josephine Pearson is part of a very interesting—in fact I think many readers find the most surprising parts of the book, which is why there were women who opposed women’s suffrage. And then of course you have Sue White, who represents that third generation, that impatient, disruptive generation who are tired of waiting, is going to demand the vote, and takes different tactics—much more confrontation in your face tactics—to win it. Again, we see this in today’s politics. So, I was very lucky to find these three women.

HOWARD KAPLAN:  That’s terrific. I think one of the notable things about your book is that you really give voice to both the suffs and the antis in the story, in terms of their activism, as well as their sensibilities and values. If you agree with that, why do you think that was important to do?

ELAINE WEISS:  That’s an excellent question. Giving voice to the anti-suffragists as well as the suffragists, the women who opposed enfranchisement of women as well as those who advocated for it, was I think a very important conflict historically, as well as a modern dilemma that we find ourselves in. I wanted to give full voice to the anti-suffragists, partly because I needed to show that they weren’t pushovers. It wasn’t easy for the suffragists to refute some of their arguments. It wasn’t easy to wage this fight between women. And I wanted to give it its full due and not make it cartoonish. It’s easy to make the anti-suffrage women into almost comical characters because their arguments in some ways sound outdated and sexist and in other ways still have resonance today because we hear versions of it in our public discourse right now. So I wanted to make them worthy competitors, I wanted to make them fully intelligent opponents of suffrage and explain what was at stake for them.

On the other hand, of course, I knew where my sympathies would be. I would not subscribe to what the anti-suffragists were espousing, but I wanted to give them their full historical due. And I think again, what readers tell me is they are very surprised by this whole aspect of the fight. They had not considered or knew or even imagined there would be organized opposition by women to women’s suffrage. So that became, again, an important aspect to portray the complexity and texture of what was going on. It was a fight on many, many levels with many different participants. And again, it has resonance for right now.

HOWARD KAPLAN:  Great. Well anther thing that I think that your book obviously gets to is what you alluded to as the racial dimensions of the story, or in the language at the time, what was referred to as “The Negro Question.” Do you want to comment a little bit on that and why you thought that was an important part of the story, including the heart of the story, about the ratification struggle?.

ELAINE WEISS:  Yes, the racial aspect of the story again for those who are not historians of the period, which includes most of us, it comes as a bit of a shock that race is part of this voting rights story from the very beginning. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us because certainly race and voting rights have been an unfortunate pairing in most of our history, and to this present day. But the idea that race was so entwined with women’s suffrage at the first moment, as they are sibling causes in the antebellum period. The founders of the women’s suffrage movement come out of the abolition movement. Frederick Douglass is at Seneca Falls and is a very, very passionate advocate for women’s suffrage and continues to be until the end of his life in 1895.

But the idea that women saw their oppression not equal to, but mirrored in the oppression of black citizens, was I think a central motivator of why these two themes in American history come together. And it continues throughout, not only the debates in Congress and the federal amendment is stuck in Congress, it’s stalled there purposely for 40 years. And that stalling in Congress is the result of many pressures, political, corporate, there is a lot of corporate money fighting the idea of women going to the polls, but also racial. And basically, it comes down to states, many of them in the former Confederacy, but also this comes up in northern states, do not want black women to vote. And this would give the right, the 19th Amendment does give the right to vote to all women in every election, in every state. And this would be an enormous change, and it was being fought tooth and nail, for all through the fights of congressional passage. And even at the very end. Wee just celebrated the anniversary of congressional passage in May and early June of 1919.

Even on that last day of the date in the Senate before it squeaks through, really with the two-thirds majority that it needs to be passed, there are senators trying to put amendments in that it will just affect white women, and there is bloviation about how this is going to bring the downfall of American moral sensibility because women will be abandoning their families to go out to vote. The racial aspect is just rife throughout the whole movement, and then as it goes into the states for ratification, especially in the Southern states, that is one of the prime movers of the anti-suffragists, saying don’t do this, don’t ratify this federal amendment, this would allow the federal government to oversee our elections and tell us who can go into the voting booth.

And of course in those states, Jim Crow laws had subverted the 15th Amendment giving black men the right to vote and they didn’t want to have a 19th Amendment, which would put them in jeopardy of violating another constitutional amendment. Now what we know happens is that Congress abandons its responsibility for enforcement and does not enforce the 15th Amendment and does not enforce the 19th Amendment when black women are subsequently denied the right to vote.

But in Tennessee, where my book takes place in the summer of 1920, that last state to have to ratify, race is a predominant issue. And there circulates anti-suffrage broadsides that talk about how this is going to upset the racial order, and if black women can vote, they might feel a social equality that is not acceptable in those states. And you see broadsides again that talk about the Negro Problem and say, this is going to bring back the horrors of Reconstruction, which in their mind, means there might actually be black people voting and black legislators elected into their state legislature, or even in Congress. So this is what they’re afraid of. They’re afraid this is going to topple white supremacy. And so I did not expect that to be one of the prime themes of what the ratification battle was about in Tennessee, but it turns out to be.

HOWARD KAPLAN:  My next question then, I think, really you addressed in your first response, which is how The Woman’s Hour fosters public understanding of law and legal process, including the constitutional amendment process. Would you like to add anything to that?

ELAINE WEISS:  Yes, I would, because, as I was researching and writing the book, I realized how much this was a book about how change is made in a democracy, how our Constitution is a living document, and it is meant to be amended. It was amended at the very moment after creation, with the first ten amendments, what we call the Bill of Rights, of course. And it continues to have to become a modern document. And so how does our democratic society, how does our American society, address issues and laws that are no longer applicable or no longer healthy for us to live by? And of course we’ve done that with racial, civil rights laws. We’ve done that in many different aspects.

But this to me was a fascinating process of how do you change the law, how do you change the law of the land, which is the Constitution? And to see the process – and I hope my readers see the process, it begins with conversations around tea tables of grassroots, ordinary citizens, saying something is wrong. And then they have to go out. It radiates into discussions and meetings and rallies saying, we need to change this, we need to change hearts and minds.

They had to change women’s views of themselves, and they had to convince women they needed to vote to protect themselves, and to be equal in the eyes of the law. Because when you think about it, in the 19th century, when this movement begins, women don’t have property rights, women can’t file civil suit, they can’t testify in the court of law, they cannot sit on a jury, they don’t have custody of their own children. So there are fundamental laws that need to be changed and addressed, and the suffragists look at all of these.

The Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls is a remarkable document and very modern. It calls for equal pay for equal work. This was 1848. It calls for knocking down the barriers to education and to the professions. It advocates for equal financial and property rights. All these things we’re still talking about. But they had to convince women first that they needed this, and then they had to convince men, because men made all the decisions. There were state referenda, again, the vote can be accorded – this is the legal part of it – either by federal amendment or by state law.

And so there were dozens and dozens of campaigns in many states. And some states did vote to give women the franchise. But of course only men could vote for these. Only men were eligible to make these decisions, and then of course in the legislatures and in Congress, there’s now one woman, Jeannette Rankin, who was in Congress in 1917, but before that, there was no woman, and in the legislatures, there are virtually no women. And so suffragists have to lay the groundwork and then they have to apply the law. And so they become experts in how state law works, and then federal law. And many of them train in the law in order to be more expert. You see a lot of them either reading law or actually becoming lawyers. They become lobbyists. They learn to not only protest, which they do and they take to the streets, but they also learn how to the legal process works, and how to use the process for advancing a better and more inclusive democracy.

And so I hope the book explains or gives inspiration to how do we in a democracy change the law, make our Constitution more responsive, make federal and state law more responsive to what each generation needs, while keeping the spirit. I mean, it’s not making frivolous changes, but it is a process and we should be very honored and proud of that process. And this book chronicling the woman’s suffrage movement, the largest reform movement in our nation’s history, shows how that can be done and it can be done by ordinary citizens. It’s never done by fiat. It has to be done by the people.

ELAINE WEISS:  Well this was an excellent interview.  Thank you. I had a lot of fun.

HOWARD KAPLAN:  Thank you.