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Why we need more biographies of suffragists

One of the most striking characteristics of the American women’s suffrage movement is that its history has traditionally been told through the lives of its leading figures. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Anna Howard Shaw, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Alice Paul and the organizations they founded and led dominate the story to an extent that may be unique in the historiography of any other political or social movement. Historian Jean Baker called this “the presidential model of suffrage history.”

This process dates back to the nineteenth century, when the different factions competed to cement their role in the historical record of the still evolving movement. Susan B. Anthony’s collaboration in what became a three-volume history of her life written by her close associate Ida Husted Harper is a prime example. Husted presents Anthony as a heroic figure totally dedicated to women’s rights, a model designed to inspire future generations while also cementing Anthony’s role as the personification of the struggle. Biographies of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Carrie Chapman Catt and others, often produced by their progeny or close associates, staked claims for their subjects’ historical significance, creating their own heroic narratives of sacrifice and perseverance for a general public which unfortunately was fast losing interest in their legacies.

This focus on national suffrage leaders persisted long after the “women worthies” approach to history and biography subsided. While there is no recent biography of Carrie Chapman Catt, there are new or forthcoming biographies of Anna Howard Shaw, Helen Hamilton Gardener, and Alice Paul (although accounts of her life generally stop in 1920 rather than grappling with her five decades of advocacy on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment). And more are no doubt in the works.

Is there ever “too much biography” in a certain field? What is lost by focusing almost exclusively on iconic, larger-than-life leaders?

As a self-described serial biographer, it pains me to raise this prospect, but I do wonder about the diminishing returns of the grand biographical narrative, at least as applied to national suffrage leaders. Is there ever “too much biography” in a certain field? What is lost by focusing almost exclusively on iconic, larger-than-life leaders? While fascinating people like Maud Wood Park and Alice Stone Blackwell clearly deserve their own stand-alone biographies, where do we draw the line? Perhaps instead of continuing to profile leading suffragists it would be more fruitful to identify new questions to ask about suffrage history as a whole.

It is premature to declare a moratorium on suffrage biography, however. Suffrage history without biography would be a dreary and lifeless prospect. What we need instead is a commitment to a different kind of suffrage biography, one which expands the master narrative to include a wider cast of characters who represent the diversity and scope of the movement where it actually happened—out in the country as a whole, not just in suffrage headquarters in Washington, New York, and Boston.

One area where biography is playing an especially large role is in reclaiming the lives of African American activists. Recent biographies of Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells will hopefully soon be joined by biographies of such figures as Maria Stewart, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, and others. Fully documenting the activism of African American women in their churches, communities, and public culture has the potential to reshape how we see the social and political movements these women participated in. And placing African American women’s contributions to the suffrage movement at the center rather than the periphery will dramatically shift our understanding of the fight for the vote.

Collective biography is also well suited to capture the energy and passion that motivated people to risk so much for a cause. Biographical dictionaries like the American National BiographyNotable American Women, and the Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States offer the potential to create a broader, more representative picture of suffrage activism. Putting the entries in conversation with each other often uncovers unexpected links and patterns that show how the story played out far away from national centers of leadership. When the biographical data from these individual lives is aggregated, the whole often does add up to more than the sum of the parts.

[I]t is time to embrace biography for what it can tell us about the range of women (and more than a few men) who participated so passionately in the long campaign to secure the right to vote for women.

Why stop at national boundaries? One of the most striking aspects of suffrage history is how international the story is. Ideas, tactics, and people migrated freely from country to country and over time; rich friendship networks developed that nurtured and sustained the struggle over what turned out to be a very long history. Biography offers an ideal format to capture those transnational patterns of exchange and interaction.

As the United States moves into the final stretch leading up to the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment on 26 August 2020, it is time to embrace biography for what it can tell us about the range of women (and more than a few men) who participated so passionately in the long campaign to secure the right to vote for women. These are the people who make social movements happen. We need to know and hear their stories.

Featured image: Youngest parader in New York City suffragist parade by the American Press Association, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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