'Finish The Fight' Paints A Different Picture Of Women Who Pushed For A Vote

Aug 26, 2020
Originally published on August 26, 2020 6:23 pm

In recent years, the image of the American suffragist has been evoked by women in Congress wearing white.

But the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment has been an opportunity for some to take a closer look at the stories of the women of the movement — the ones we think we already know, and the ones that have been lost to history.

Finish the Fight!: The Brave and Revolutionary Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote is a picture book by Veronica Chambers and the staff of The New York Times — and it paints a very different picture of the various women who fought for the right to vote.

Interview Highlights

On the idea for the book

Well, about a year ago we knew the anniversary of suffrage was coming up and we started asking: What did we know about suffrage? And we kept coming up with the same old names. But we knew that there was a lot that we didn't know. And once we dove into it, it was really exciting.

On one of those names — Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

I think that someone like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was really interesting because she was very different than a Sojourner Truth. You know, she was this woman who was really well-educated, one of the first African-American women to publish a book in the U.S. She gave a speech in 1866 at the National Women's Rights Convention where she basically said, I don't think that giving women the ballot is going to do everything for us and that we really have to take the measure of everyone. That was really problematic, I think, to some people in the suffrage movement who were used to Black women being grateful to be there on their terms.

On the conversation about Black men getting the right to vote versus white women – and leaving women of color out of the discussion

Frederick Douglass was at the convention for Seneca Falls. But when the 15th Amendment came and really was a question of survival, people thought that if Black men didn't get the vote, the chance of slavery becoming a de facto practice would be very great. And it was true. I mean, one of the things that politicizes people like Francis Ellen Watkins Harper is the fact that free Black people are being kidnapped and stolen back into slavery. And without a vote, there was really no recourse against it.

On Latina women and queer women related to the movement

One of the things that's super interesting is, one, we didn't want to just tell the story of queer women as this history of white women, which I think often it does. So we talked about people like Alice Dunbar Nelson, who documented her relationships with both men and women in her diaries.

But the other thing is that it's really tricky to impose our contemporary definition of sexuality and gender onto the 19th century. ... You realize is that, one, for women in this movement, whether or not they identified as queer or not, that freedom to love who you want to love is inextricably tied up with voting rights. And so some of these marriages were perhaps sexual, but more importantly, it was that there was a deep friendship and independence because part of what women knew is that if they didn't get married, they could lose everything. They didn't have a voice in government without a vote. So whether or not they were unmarried and queer or unmarried and not queer, voting became really important. And the female friendships, the independence of being a woman who can define herself outside of a relationship with a man is very key to the movement — to the suffrage movement overall.

On women who were not supportive of the suffragist movement as it was operating at that time

We tend to look back and think all women must have been for women voting. And one of the things we looked at was the question of women who were anti-suffrage. It wasn't that these women felt that women shouldn't have a voice. There was this feeling that women's political power was pure outside of traditional structures. So anti-suffrage women were fighting for better working conditions for working women. They were fighting for better child education and child labor laws. A lot of the issues that we care about, child care and early childhood education, there was just this idea that politics and the sort of corridors of Washington and national politics were not the place for women. But it wasn't that they, in their own way, didn't feel that there were issues that women could and should weigh in on.

On thinking about conservative ideology when it comes to women today

At a time when we are constantly made to feel that we're so separate and different and fighting for our lives, history can be kind of a powerful reminder that the American experiment, as they talk about in the musical Hamilton, was just that. And that we are really just in one phase of that experiment and that everything we know about culture and identity and women and voting and perspectives and platforms has a deep history that goes really way back.

On whether the fight feels finished

I think anyone who's a woman in this country knows that we don't get equal pay, that things like child care, which so many suffragists and even women who were anti-suffrage ... women who were anti-suffrage still fought for child care for women, you know, all of the things that would give women an equal standing in society. There's a lot of that still hanging in the balance. And so, I guess my answer is that I hate to think of it solely as a fight, but I think that the question of women's equality is far from complete in this country.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In recent years, the image of the American suffragist has been evoked by women in Congress wearing white. But the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment has been an opportunity for some to take a closer look at the stories of the women of the movement, the ones we think we already know and the ones that have been lost to history. "Finish The Fight" is a picture book by Veronica Chambers and the staff of The New York Times. And it paints a very different picture of the various women who fought for the right to vote. She's here now to talk more about it. Welcome to the program.

VERONICA CHAMBERS: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Veronica, how did you get the idea for this book?

CHAMBERS: Well, about a year ago, we knew the anniversary of suffrage was coming up. And we started asking, what did we know about suffrage? And we kept coming up with the same old names, but we knew that there was a lot that we didn't know. And once we dove into it, it was really exciting.

CORNISH: To that point, I want to jump right in - right? - on one of those names, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. She was a speaker at the 1866 National Women's Rights Convention, and she was an abolitionist originally from Baltimore. She's one of the stories that you don't hear very often or ever. I hadn't heard of her. Can you talk about how she's a good example of the kind of person who you guys were excited to find?

CHAMBERS: Yeah. I think that someone like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was really interesting because she was very different than a Sojourner Truth. You know, she was this woman who was really well-educated, one of the first African American women to publish a book in the U.S. She gave a speech in 1866 at the National Women's Rights Convention where she basically said, I don't think that giving women the ballot is going to do everything for us and that we really have to take the measure of everyone. That was really problematic, I think, to some people in the suffrage movement who were used to Black women being grateful to be there on their terms.

CORNISH: This was before the 15th Amendment, and there was this back and forth within the movement about what it meant for enslaved Black men to get the right to vote versus white women. Of course, this conversation left out women of color. And that tension was real.

CHAMBERS: It was very real. Frederick Douglass was at the convention for Seneca Falls. But when the 15th Amendment came and it really was a question of survival, people felt that if Black men didn't get the vote, the chance of slavery becoming a de facto practice would be very great. And it was true. I mean, one of the things that politicizes people like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is the fact that free Black people are being kidnapped and stolen back into slavery. And without a vote, there was really no recourse against it.

CORNISH: And you talk about Latina women and queer women, and there are lots of little clues about that world in particular. In fact, the term Boston marriage, which I hadn't heard of, referred to two financially independent women who set up house together and lived as partners. Can you talk about what it was like trying to pick up these little breadcrumbs in the history?

CHAMBERS: Right. One of the things that's super interesting is, one, we didn't want to just tell the story of queer women as this history of white women, which I think often it does. So we talked about people like Alice Dunbar Nelson who documented her relationships with both men and women in her diaries. But the other thing is is that it's really tricky to impose our contemporary definition of sexuality and gender on to the 19th century. So the Boston marriage that you mentioned is interesting because what you realize is that, one, for women in this movement, whether or not they identified as queer or not, the freedom to love who you want to love is inextricably tied up with voting rights. And so some of these marriages were perhaps sexual, but more importantly, it was that there was a deep friendship and independence because part of what women knew is that if they didn't get married, they could lose everything. They didn't have a voice in government without a vote. So whether or not they were unmarried and queer or unmarried and not queer, voting became really important. And the female friendships, the independence of being a woman who can define herself outside of a relationship with a man, is very key to the movement, to the suffrage movement overall.

CORNISH: So much of the suffrage movement is, I guess, valorized, right? And it's very tempting to make sort of heroes and villains. Yet I notice in the book you do feature stories of women who were not supportive of the movement as it was operating at that time. Can you talk about a voice that symbolized that and why you wanted to underscore it?

CHAMBERS: We tend to look back and think all women must have been for women voting. And one of the things we looked at was the question of women who were anti-suffrage. It wasn't that these women felt that women shouldn't have a voice. There was this feeling that women's political power was pure outside of traditional structures. So anti-suffrage women were fighting for better working conditions for working women. They were fighting for better child education and child labor laws. A lot of the issues that we care about - child care and early childhood education - there was just this idea that politics and the sort of corridors of Washington and national politics were not the place for women. But it wasn't that they in their own way didn't feel that there were issues that women could and should weigh in on.

CORNISH: How did it make you think about even conservative ideology when it comes to women today?

CHAMBERS: At a time when we are constantly made to feel that we're so separate and different and fighting for our lives, history can be kind of a powerful reminder that the American experiment as they talk about in the musical "Hamilton" was just that and that we are really just in one phase of that experiment and that everything we know about culture and identity and women and voting and perspectives and platforms has a deep history that goes really way back.

CORNISH: The book is called "Finish The Fight." Does the fight feel finished to you?

CHAMBERS: That's a great question. The 26 of August is the certification of suffrage, the 19th Amendment, but it's also Women's Equality Day. I think a lot of people feel like the ERA not being passed yet...

CORNISH: And this is the Equal Rights Amendment.

CHAMBERS: Yes, the Equal Rights Amendment. The minute the 19th Amendment passes, Alice Paul starts to write the Equal Rights Amendment. And from 1920 to 2020, that has not passed, and I think anyone who's a woman in this country knows that we don't get equal pay, that things like child care, which so many suffragists and even women who were anti-suffrage - I mean, we did a whole thing on women who were anti-suffrage, which was so interesting. Women who were anti-suffrage still fought for child care for women. You know, all of the things that would give women an equal standing in society, there's a lot of that still hanging in the balance. And so I guess my answer is that I hate to think of it solely as a fight, but I think that the question of women's equality is far from complete in this country.

CORNISH: Veronica Chambers - her book is called "Finish The Fight: The Brave And Revolutionary Women Who Fought For The Right To Vote." Thank you so much for sharing their stories with us.

CHAMBERS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.