In 1876 Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joceylyn Gage decided it might be good to write down the history of the suffrage movement for posterity. It was going to be a simple pamphlet that would take a few months to finish. It grew into a 6000 page six volume series that was finished by the next generation of suffrage leaders in 1922!
When given the opportunity to tell a story of something that happened, it’s only human nature to present ourselves in the best possible light. That’s the major criticism of the “History of Woman Suffrage.”
While it has indeed been an incredibly valuable original source account, the first three volumes were primarily written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joceyln Gage. (Susan B. Anthony donated lots of letters and speeches she had collected over the years, but she preferred to make history rather than write about it.) They left out anything that didn’t fit the narrative of suffrage having been a united cause, put great emphasis on their own personal contributions, and glorified the National Suffrage Women’s Association (NWSA).
This is where most of the suffragists of color, and important leaders from the rival group the American Woman’s Suffrage Association (AWSA Stone/Blackwell/Howe) get pushed aside. Even later volumes written by the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association downplay leaders like Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party group (both NAWSA and NWP will be featured in later episodes).
It really comes down to the fact that very few things were officially and carefully documented in an easy to access way during the suffrage movement. Stanton and Gage got to control the narrative because no one else wrote the other side of the story in such a clear and organized source material. Had the AWSA decided to put down things for posterity at the same level, it might not have taken so long for Lucy Stone to get credit for all her work. Alice Paul simply outlived her rivals and made it all the way into being part of the second wave feminist movement of the 70s.
The “History of Woman Suffrage” volumes I-VI were the main uncontested sources for all information about suffrage until it was challenged in 1959 by the book “Century of Struggle” by Elenor Flexner, a renowned independendent scholar and pioneer of women’s studies; the book was published by Harvard Press. Flexnor opened the door for historians to study the narratives left out of “History of Woman Suffage,” but it would take decades until many suffrage participants would become better studied and documented.
If we had a fraction of today’s over-documentation, women of color would not be so hard to find. They were there--lots of them fought for suffrage. Many were absolutely heroic and were treated shabbily by some (but not all) of the white suffrage groups. There are also plenty of men of all races who supported suffrage who still remain unknown. Modern historians are diligently compiling sources and bringing all these people out of the shadows, but it’s a lot of work and few history programs have good funding. Most is done by amateur historians who scour historical societies, libraries, and newspaper archives on their own time and publish their findings in newsletters, and public databases.
Even a simple thing like transcribing old newspaper articles and handwritten items into searchable text on a computer has helped the world to learn about unsung heroes (and “she-roes”) that contributed to every field in every century and in every corner of the earth. Keyword searches don’t work on screenshots or microfiche. The Library of Congress has an ongoing program for volunteers to do this remotely from computers in their own homes. They have recently sent out the call for suffrage transcription via Smithsonian Magazine. (See below for the LOC link.) Be a history detective, you never know who you might find!
This week’s song pick:
“Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield https://youtu.be/b7k0a5hYnSI
To help the Library of Congress transcribe suffrage papers:
Episode 31 Sources
The entire six volumes are for sale through any bookseller but here’s Volume 1 for free online
“Century of Struggle” by Elenor Flexnor is available for purchase through any bookseller