This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Elaine Weiss writes about this battle for equality in “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight To Win The Vote.” Weiss will be joining Traverse City’s National Writers Series at 7 p.m. on June 11 for a live-streamed event.
A century ago there was a battle for equality going on while the world was trying to rebuild after the 1918 flu pandemic. The more it changes, the more it’s the same …
Register for An Evening with Elaine Weiss here. You’ll automatically be registered for the NWS Virtual Authors Summer Series and will receive reminders before all of the events (events are free). There’s also a Morsels book bundle for the Elaine Weiss event that includes a dozen Morsels and a signed paperback copy of “The Woman’s Hour” for $30. Order here by June 8 for pickup or delivery.
Weiss has worked as a Washington correspondent, congressional aide, speechwriter, magazine editor and university journalism instructor. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor, as well as in reports and documentaries for National Public Radio and Voice of America. A MacDowell Colony Fellow and Pushcart Prize Editor’s Choice honoree, she is also the author of “Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army of America in the Great War.”
Guest host for the June 11 Evening with Elaine Weiss is Susan Odgers, a faculty member at Northwestern Michigan College and Board Chair of the Traverse City Human Rights Commission. The National Writers Series recently had an e-chat with Weiss.
NWS: Your home is in Baltimore, Maryland. Currently, what’s life like there, during Gov. Larry Hogan’s “stay home, stay safe” order?
Elaine Weiss: I’m thankful that my governor—like yours in Michigan—cares enough about the citizens of the state to keep us safe. Even as the state of Maryland is phasing in the easing of restrictions, our mayor in Baltimore is keeping them in place, to assure the safety gains made are not squandered. But my life as a writer is much the same—long hours alone at the desk is nothing new for me. But everything else is strange.
NWS: “The Woman’s Hour” is a nonfiction history book that reads like a political thriller. Who are the main characters and what did they want? Tell us about the role Harry Burn, 24, played.
EW: The book is the story of the last battle in the fight for women’s suffrage—the last state to ratify the 19th Amendment—Tennessee. It takes place in Nashville in the summer of 1920 when all the forces for and against women’s suffrage clash in the capital. My main characters are the three women who lead their respective forces into the fight: Carrie Chapman Catt, protegé of Susan B. Anthony, president of the largest suffrage organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She has dedicated her life to “The Cause” and this is the definitive battle—her legacy is at stake, as is the enfranchisement of half of the citizens of the nation.
My second character is young Sue Shelton White, lieutenant to Alice Paul, of the breakaway and more radical wing of the suffrage movement, the National Woman’s Party. Sue is a third-generation suffragist, impatient with the slow pace of progress in achieving equality, willing to be confrontational and disruptive in her quest for the vote. Her future is at stake.
And finally, Josephine Pearson, president of the Tennessee Women Opposed to Woman Suffrage, who fears that suffrage will undermine the American family and the foundations of southern society—i.e. white supremacy. For Josephine and her comrades, the moral collapse of the nation is at stake.
I won’t tell you about Harry Burn, that’s for readers to find out.
NWS: What are some of the common myths about the passage of the 19th Amendment?
EW: 1.) That it just happened: enlightened men of Congress saw fit to correct the egregious omission of women to be able to vote. That it was quick and easy. That it did not require seven decades and three generations of women fighting for it. 2.) That the 19th Amendment did not grant the vote to ALL women. This is not true: the 19th does give the vote to all eligible woman citizens—but the amendment was subverted by Jim Crow laws in the southern states—so African American women (and men) could not enjoy the franchise promised by the 19th (or the 15th) Amendments. Also undermined by racist government policies—both federal and state—classifying Native Americans and Asian Americans as not being citizens, so not eligible to vote.
NWS: Extensive research is a crucial component of your writing. You’ve worked with a variety of librarians, historians and archivists. What key document did you find that surprised you?
EW: I was surprised by many documents, among them the publications of the anti-suffragists.
NWS: The Spanish flu pandemic occurred from 1918–20, what impact did this have on the suffragist movement?
EW: They continued to campaign as best they could—but were severely limited. Rallies and marches were impossible, large meetings and conventions canceled, even parlor meetings nixed. They used the mail to distribute material, telephone, signs, tacking bulletins to trees. Many suffragists ‚ and their families—fell ill; some died. Others took on frontline roles as nurses and health care workers.
NWS: While researching and writing “The Woman’s Hour,” what parts did you have the strongest emotional reaction to?
EW: 1.) The courage of the suffragists. 2.) The bitter intensity of the racial political dynamics. 3.) The hypocrisy of the anti-suffrage arguments.
NWS: “The Woman’s Hour (Adapted for Young Readers)” will be released on June 2. What are your hopes for this edition?
EW: I very much want young people to understand what it took to secure the right to vote—how difficult the fight was, how brave the suffrage activists were, how important it is to stand up against injustice, in all its forms. I hope the story gives them a sense of how lucky they are to have inherited these rights—women’s political equality and expanded role in society, and voting rights in general—and not take them for granted. It will be their job to protect these gains against assault (happening now) and their responsibility to exercise their own voting rights by participating in EVERY election. It’s also just an exciting, inspiring read.
NWS: How involved are you with Steven Spielberg’s upcoming production of “The Woman’s Hour” for television? What can you tell us about this?
EW: I am an executive producer on the project, as is Secretary Hillary Clinton. It is being developed for TV as a scripted limited series. That’s about all for now.
NWS: Michigan’s own Helen Milliken fought tirelessly for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). To pass the ERA, what might we take from the suffragists’ playbook?
EW: The Equal Rights Amendment, introduced into Congress in 1923, WAS passed by Congress (after 50 years of stalling) in 1972. It fell short of full ratification by the states (38 states required) in two successive efforts in the 1970s, due to Congress placing a time-limit on the process. In 2019 Virginia became the 38th state to ratify: it will now go into the courts.
Answer to your question: persistence. And good legal representation.
NWS: You’re friends with Steve Luxenberg, who has been to the National Writers Series twice. What unique history topics are the two of you likely to discuss over lunch?
EW: 19th-century railroad laws.
NWS: Your husband is from Michigan. Can you share a prior Michigan experience?
EW: I’ve learned to hold up my hand, to point on my palm to designate the place in Michigan under discussion. But I always forget if it’s the left or right hand I should be raising.