New Research on Women’s Suffrage at the Centennial

This session will take place at the 2020 OAH Annual Meeting | Conference on American History in Washington, D.C. Read the full abstract and speaker information here.

The 2020 centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment has already elicited tremendous scholarly press and popular attention, with several new re-interpretations of the movement recently published or forthcoming in 2020. The 2020 suffrage centennial also coincides with the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment and a highly contested election in which citizens’ access to the ballot remains a defining issue. This roundtable will preview new scholarship on suffrage, highlight the key points of discussion in 2020 – including links between the suffrage movement and #MeToo, voter suppression, grassroots organizing, and women's activism, both progressive and conservative -- to suggest how we as historians might best participate in and help facilitate conversations about women’s suffrage commemoration and the continued struggle for voting rights in 2020.

This roundtable features several of the scholars who have contributed to the suffrage centennial special issue of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (forthcoming July 2020): Crystal Feimster, Kimberly Hamlin, Lauren MacIvor Thompson, Rachel Gunter, Sunu Kodumthara, and Kara Swanson. Whereas the existing history of the woman suffrage movement has focused primarily on white women’s participation through mainstream suffrage organizations, this roundtable highlights new research focusing on race, science, and sex, illuminating a vast number of previously untold suffrage stories and complicating the stories we thought we did know.

Understanding that demands for women’s suffrage took place during a moment of fraught citizenship, Rachel Gunter analyzes how claims for women voting worked in the larger context of debates about non-citizen voting and the disfranchisement of servicemen. Kimberly Hamlin’s study of Congressional documents and correspondence between the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Congressional Committee and key members of Congress reveals the extent to which the 19th Amendment was discussed in terms of the 15th. Not only did Congressmen resist the idea of black women voting, they also feared that ratification of the 19th Amendment would somehow prompt the enforcement of the 15th. Sunu Kodumthara focuses on women who opposed the ballot and reveals how anti-suffrage women reluctantly transitioned into voters in the 1920s, often in order to counteract the influence that they feared “other” voting women would have.

Participants also expand our understanding of suffrage history by foregrounding debates about woman voting in new contexts. Kara Swanson mines the ways in which white suffragists and African Americans applied for – and then publicized—patents as an alternative way to make claims for citizenship, incorporating the history of technology into women’s rights history. Drawing on insights from the history of medicine and sexual history, Lauren MacIvor Thompson explores the previously understudied links between the suffrage and birth control movements, highlighting the women, such as Crystal Eastman and Katherine Dexter McCormick, who were involved in both reforms.

Each contributor will preview their research and suggest questions to facilitate broader conversations about how historians might approach the suffrage centennial in their classrooms, research, and public events. While acknowledging 1920 as an important moment, this roundtable will also destabilize it, emphasizing that for women of color continuity reigned rather than change, and stressing new questions that we might ask about how race, sex, and science were deeply linked with women’s political lives.

Posted: February 27, 2020
Tagged: Previews, Conference, Women's History