The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss (Penguin, 2019)
What are the big take-aways?
In 2020, Americans will celebrate the centennial anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment, which granted women citizens of the United States the right to vote. The Woman’s Hour focuses – with breathtaking journalistic detail – on the screwy, fast-paced, shameful and marvelous process that took place in Nashville over a few weeks in the summer of 1920 which led to the Tennessee becoming the 36th and final state needed for ratification. There are definite winners and losers in this story, as well as lots of profiles in courage and grit and tenacity, but in my view – given the naked racial bigotry in which every major actor traded at one time or another – there are few genuine heroes.
The big take-away for me was a renewed sense of profound dismay that, a century later, and there still is no federal Equal Rights Amendment guaranteeing equal legal rights to all American citizens regardless of sex. (One of the authors of the ERA, Alice Paul, figures prominently in The Woman’s Hour. The original ERA was introduced to Congress in 1923, and didn’t go anywhere. It was reintroduced in 1971, when it was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, and in 1972 it was approved by the U.S. Senate. It lives in limbo to this day.)
Why do I like it?
Somehow, Elaine Weiss makes what could have been a soul-sucking legislative procedural account into a genuine nail-biter, even though you know the outcome. Weiss describes the main characters, their cultural context, the scenery and the personal and professional stakes of the drama in Nashville (and beyond) in compelling detail, and from multiple perspectives. As the reader, what you cannot fathom – while Weiss deftly unspools the bizarre thread of events – is exactly how the women and men who devoted their lives, careers and political destinies to the Cause will finally prevail.
The other thing I appreciated about The Woman’s Hour is what a stunning reminder it provides that the struggles for civil rights for minorities and women, and true universal suffrage everywhere in America, are not only ongoing but still echo precisely the same underlying misogynist, racial, regional, and damaging partisan dynamics (across the political spectrum) with which they reverberated a hundred years ago.
In what situations would this be useful?
This book gives the reader valuable perspective on post-Civil War American history, southern U.S. political and cultural history, African-American history, early 20th-century presidential history, and the roots of the League of Women Voters, the Civil Rights movement and modern activism against voter suppression. If you’re a leader who locates yourself in any of these contexts, The Woman’s Hour will offer powerful insights.
What other resources might “pair” well with it?
There are several significant exhibits going on right now in our nation’s capital commemorating the adoption of the 19th amendment ahead of the upcoming centennial. While visiting D.C. on business in September, I was glad I carved out time to view the documents, artifacts and film footage on display at the Library of Congress in a superb collection entitled “Shall Not Be Denied.” The exhibit features a magazine cover reproducing “The Woman’s Hour” poster, explaining:
Five thousand artists entered a poster contest held by NAWSA to launch their 1917 campaign. New York illustrator Edward A. Poucher won the $250 first prize, drawing inspiration from Carrie Chapman Catt’s rousing 1916 convention speech challenging suffragists to abandon their complacency. In an obvious reference to women yielding to “The Negro’s Hour” after the Civil War, Catt declared that “The Woman’s Hour has struck.”
Two other national museums (and their websites) featuring the suffrage centennial include “Rightfully Hers” at the National Archives, and “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence” at the National Portrait Gallery.