Sunday, August 24, 2014

'Sisters' Debunks 'Weaker Sex' Myth

Review by Bill Doughty
The fight for women's equality in the United States began before the Civil War. Jean H. Baker's "Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists" pumps blood into the story of five key women who fought for women, especially after the war  leading eventually to the ratification of the 19th Amendment August 26, 1920. Baker takes us into the streets, the conference halls, minds and occasionally even the bedrooms of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, Lucy Stone and Alice Paul.

Baker achieves her goal. She virtually brings to life the women who are otherwise "homogenized into stiff icons of feminized democracy." And, through biographies of each leader, Baker also brings to life the history of the pursuit of equal rights for women in the United States. Why these five activists and why so private?
"There were other prominent suffrage leaders, but I have chosen these five because I believe them to be indispensable. Not only did they found and lead the national organizations that served as surrogate political parties for women before 1920, they also provided a network of leadership that shaped the goals of this first wave of American feminists. The excision of these women's private lives has often made it seem that the politics of organized suffrage summarized the entirety of their existence. For them the political seemingly became the personal."
One or more of the five women introduced by Baker experience imprisonment, are pelted with eggs, have heartbreak in and out of marriage, experience postpartum depression, live with an eating disorder, fight for birth control, and are rejected by clerics and other male-dominated institutions. Yet they stand up, speak out and in later years go out to demonstrate in the face of hate and prejudice.

Often single-mindedly and always with strong commitment, these feminists struggled for a woman's right to vote, which they saw as a universal right guaranteed by the founders in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. Only the ability to vote, they knew, would guarantee "consent of the governed."
Susan B. Anthony said, "Woman needs the ballot as a protection to herself; it is a means and not an end. Until she gets it she will not be satisfied, nor shall she be protected." Women should have a right to choose their destiny.

Baker quotes Elizabeth Cady Stanton: "In a government that denied women the right to vote, 'All laws which place [woman] in a position inferior to that of man are contrary to that great precept of nature and therefore no force or authority.'"

Liberty as a natural right for all humans propelled the passage of the 15th Amendment, giving blacks the right to vote – but only black males. True equality would take another hundred years with the civil rights movement that culminated under Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s.

Several of the women in "Sisters" were contemporaries of, or knew, Frederick Douglass. Each of the women were either abolitionists or supporters of greater rights for former slaves. In the case of Willard, a faith-based religious crusade against alcohol became as important as the fight for universal suffrage. Yet she had an ambivalence toward the rights of African Americans.
"In the 1890s Willard's limited commitment to racial equality foundered on the lynching issue. She opposed the terrorist, extrajudicial process of lynching black men in vigilante actions in the South. On the other hand she refused to join the campaign of Ida Wells, a young black journalist and activist who worked to arouse sympathy for black victims by making the case that they were innocent ... Willard's aspirations never had room for the divisive issue of race, and for that she provoked the anger of not just Wells but [also] reformers like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Julia Ward Howe."
One hundred years ago in August 1914 President Woodrow Wilson preached for more democracy across the world as the First World War began. But he initially aborted any attempts at equality for women at home. Alice Paul confronted him through civil disobedience, political pressure and logical reasoning and forced him to support women's right to vote.
"Indubitably Alice Paul was the most implacable, the most single-minded, the most original, the most self-sacrificing, and the most overlooked of twentieth century feminists. Implementing the doctrine of the British militants – 'Deeds, not Words' – she became the necessary culmination of what had begun at Seneca Falls in 1848. The day after her parade, while Washington celebrated the ritual activities of a presidential inauguration (though Wilson had declined an inaugural ball, believing it simply an occasion to show off 'feminine clothes'), the indefatigable Alice Paul and a few of her lieutenants were already at work organizing the first suffrage delegations to the White House, 'deputations' that would plague the president."
Alice Paul
Anthony, Stanton, Stone and Willard died years before women received the right to vote, but Alice Paul was only 35 in 1920. She had taken the struggle directly to President Wilson and won. According to Baker, "By his early opposition, later avoidance, and tepid final support on the grounds of expediency, Wilson destroyed any claim on posterity that he had expanded democracy at home or abroad."

Paul dedicated the rest of her life to promoting the Equal Rights Amendment. She died in 1977.

Read this book to discover some of the personal and private details of the suffragist's lives – as children, young women and iconic leaders in old age. Their story is part of an extended struggle from the American Revolution, to the emancipation of slaves, and through the modern civil rights movement, setting the stage for future successes of women such as Althea Gibson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, Sandra Day O'Connor, Margaret Sanger, Rear Adm. "Amazing" Grace Hopper, Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem, Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, and Adm. Michelle Howard.

The Department of Defense announced that August 26, 2014 is to be commemorated as Women's Equality Day with the theme, "Celebrating Women's Right to Vote." 

Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony statue by Pepsy Kettvong, Rochester, New York.

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