The Woman’s Hour is an electrifying nonfiction book about women’s suffrage. It’s a big old brick of a thing so I thought it would take a long time to read, but I tore through it in three very busy days. This is a must-read for anyone interested in American politics and history.
The Woman’s Hour describes the fight to get Tennessee to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment “gave” women who were United States citizens (in practice, White women) the right to vote in both state and federal elections. Suffragists needed 36 states to ratify the amendment. Tennessee was the thirty-sixth state, and were it to be lost, the momentum towards ratification would be doomed.
By focusing on one pivotal moment in the long history of the American suffrage movement, the author is able to keep the story taught and suspenseful. She gives an overview of events leading up to the fight in Tennessee, including the split between abolitionists and suffragists over the Fifteenth Amendment (which gave all male citizens the right to vote regardless of color, in theory anyway). It also covers the fracture between suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, who supported Woodrow Wilson through WWI, and Alice Paul, who continued to protest in favor of suffrage throughout the war and who favored direct action. It can be easy to get lost in the history of suffrage but this book keeps the story so tightly anchored to one state that you never lose track of the central players or their motivations and favorite tactics.
The book does exceptionally well at showing how very recent the Civil War was when it came time to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment in the South, and the role that war and its aftermath played in resistance to federally mandated suffrage for women. The book minces no words in discussing how anti-suffragists used racism to their advantage and how suffragists dealt with “the race question” by basically throwing their African-American sisters under the bus just as they had during the fight for the Fifteenth Amendment.
As the suffragists scramble for every vote they can get in the sticky Tennessee summer heat, the book builds such an atmosphere of suspense that when…
I screamed and cheered and whooped, as though watching an especially satisfying action film.
As addressed in the book, African-American women also got the vote (technically) under the Nineteenth Amendment, but they were almost universally prevented from voting until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave them some protection at the polls and registry offices. Asians were not granted citizenship, and thus were forbidden from voting, until 1943 (Chinese Americans), 1946 (Asian Indian Americans) and 1952 (Japanese Americans). Native Americans were not considered citizens until 1924 and faced similar barriers as African Americans after that. Practices including gerrymandering, requiring IDs, forbidding prisoners to vote, and other restrictive practices that continue to make voting especially difficult for African American and low income voters today.
This book is an immersive, exciting, and challenging look at an aspect of our history that is relevant in every way. If nothing else, I hope this book will remind us all to exercise our right to vote and to continue to improve voting access for those to whom it is formally or informally denied. If the lines are long, bring this book with you and read it at the polls. It’s a marvelous work of nonfiction.