The Last Suffragist
An Intellectual and Political Autobiography
From the beginning, my decision to focus my scholarship on woman suffrage ran against the grain of the developing field of women’s history. In 1969, the year I selected my dissertation topic, women’s history was only an aspiration, albeit a widespread one. Feminism was still a word that even those of us who would go on to revive it were uncomfortable using. In graduate history programs all over the country, young women like myself were realizing that the history of women in the United States was an enormous unexplored territory, rich with compelling analytical questions. Our interest in women’s history was more a product of our political activism than our career aspirations. In buildings other than the ones where we took our graduate seminars, on evenings when we were not reading in preparation for our qualifying exams, we were writing feminist manifestos, attending meetings, calling demonstrations, and forming women’s liberation organizations.
I was a graduate student at Northwestern, at the same time helping form the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. Determined to unify our political and scholarly selves (and protected by a robust economy from too-great anxieties about our future careers), my generation wanted to contribute to a historical practice that would be useful, that would not only document social change but help realize it. Meanwhile, a few miles down the road, the signal 1960s organization Students for a Democratic Society was so committed to stopping the war in Vietnam by any means necessary that it was in the process of destroying its own existence. I have often wondered about the preoccupation of men of my generation with fighting either in or against the war and what role this
played in the new prominence of women in traditionally male environments such as the university.
For the most part, women’s historians of the late 1960s and early 1970s were directing their scholarly energies toward women’s private lives—family, childrearing, sexuality.1
This was a perspective that was shaped by many factors. First, the entire practice of history was in the midst of a tremendous paradigm shift that would eventually go by the term social history.2
Itself an intellectual response to the larger politics and culture of “the sixties,” social history directed historians’ attention away from the designated rulers to the masses of common folk, with whom we believed the real fate of society lay. My teacher at the time, Jesse Lemisch, had called this new historical practice “history from the bottom up,” and those of us who adopted it did so with a crusading fervor.3
We were dedicated to a democratic approach to the power to make history, as much in our role of historian as in that of citizen. Although social history would eventually—two decades later—provide the basis for an invigorated approach to political history, for the time being, politics, at least in the formal sense of elections, officeholding, and government, was outside its purview.
In addition, there was the strong sense that politics was not the place to find women’s overlooked and suppressed historical importance—their agency,
to use the word that was coming to symbolize social historians’ intent to subvert old-fashioned notions of historical significance. The relation between “public” and “private” life would soon surface as one of the fundamental problematics of modern feminist thought, but initially, women’s historians observed the distinction even as they began to challenge it. Public life, where women had been the objects of sustained and multifaceted discrimination, did not seem the arena in which women were going to be restored to history at the level to which we aspired. Indeed, that approach had been tried by an earlier generation of women’s historians and had manifestly failed to bring women into history.4
Given the frameworks of social history, to identify women’s agency,
historians would have to focus on the things that most women did most of the time, on the very private and family concerns that had been considered too trivial and personal for historical investigation.
A major factor in the lack of interest in political history was the larger disillusionment and contempt that surrounded formal politics in these years. The rise and fall of hopes for modern liberalism during the Kennedy-Johnson years, the inexorable growth of the war in Vietnam, the electoral corruption and executive criminality of Watergate left many convinced of the uselessness of choosing between parties and of the impossibility of controlling the arrogance of power at the ballot box. I voted in November 1968, shortly after my twenty-first birthday, but cannot remember which minor candidate I preferred to Hubert Humphrey and the Democrats. In 1980, I reluctantly voted for Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan, but most of my friends refused this lesser-evil ploy. The twelve years of reactionary Republicanism ushered in at that point eventually forced renegades from Democratic liberalism back into electoral politics, but not until unbelievable damage was wrought on the social fabric and feminists and progressives of all sorts learned the painful lesson that who voted for what had significance.
From the very beginning of my work on suffrage, therefore, I felt compelled to defend my decision—to explain why the long struggle to win the vote was worth studying, what it could contribute to the field of women’s history. I made my first effort at answering this question even before completing my dissertation, in an article in 1975 in Feminist Studies,
a new journal that declared by its name that it intended not only to cultivate women’s studies but to keep it vitally connected to the feminist movement. (See Chapter 2
.) The question, as I posed it then, still seems to me to be a valid and crucial one: Why was woman suffrage the demand around which women’s boldest aspirations for emancipation coalesced in the nineteenth century? Why was political equality at the core of radical feminism in this period?
My answer, structured in response to the focus on private life that so characterized both women’s history and women’s liberation in the mid-1970s, was that precisely by bypassing the private sphere and focusing on the male monopoly of the public sphere, pioneering suffragists sent shock waves through the whole set of structures that relegated women to the family. Because political participation was not based on family life, women’s demands for inclusion represented an aspiration for power and place independent of the structures of the family and women’s subordination
in it. If I had had access to the terms developed twenty years later, I would have written that women’s demands for suffrage uniquely threatened to disrupt and reorganize the relations of gender. Later, I could make this point by suggesting an analogy between the central role that suffrage played in first-wave feminism and that abortion played in the second wave: simultaneously a concrete reform and a symbol of women’s freedom, widely appreciated as such by supporters and opponents alike.
This first attempt to express, as I called it at the time, “the radicalism of woman suffrage” left certain crucial questions unanswered that would shape my work over the next twenty years. Why was politics, more than other aspects of public life, such as wage labor, the focus of women’s rights battles against male privilege? If woman suffrage began as a radical feminist movement, why did the eventual enfranchisement of women not do more to emancipate women? And perhaps most obvious, what did I mean by “radical feminism–?
We called ourselves “radical feminists” then. The first time I spoke at an academic conference (at the 1970 meetings of the American Psychological Association!), I proudly claimed this mantle, only to be usurped at the edge of the political spectrum by copresenter Robin Morgan, who declared herself a “revolutionary feminist.” Radical feminism signified a movement that aimed to challenge the social order as profoundly as did the labor and civil rights movements. This was a complex claim that both assumed the link between feminism and other radical movements and insisted on feminism’s distinctiveness. The determination in these years to establish what we called the “autonomy” of women’s historic struggle for liberation is difficult to recall, inasmuch as feminism is infinitely more legitimate now than it was then, far stronger than the politics of class and race toward which we felt, in the 1970s, so much like junior partners. To insist on the autonomy of our questions about women’s subordination, our judgment about crucial issues, our methods of social change, was the political expression of women’s newly stubborn claims for independence on a personal level. Over the years, as feminism grew while the larger enthusiasm for radical change withered, I became less concerned with insisting on autonomy and more with drawing attention
to the connection between feminism and other battles for social justice.
The constant factor through all this, I hope, has been my attempt to encompass both the bond and the tension between the general aspiration for justice and democracy and the particular claims of feminism. Still trying to express this two decades later, I characterized the dynamic I was seeking to convey in terms of “the hyphen,” as that which connects even as it separates the two terms of the relationship. I borrowed the metaphor of the hyphen from Mary Bailey, who had used it in connection with the development of modern American “Marxist-Feminism”:5
As Marxist-Feminists we straddle an uneasy horse. We have not worked out what this means, this hyphen. . . . All too often, all this has meant is that we are Marxists to our feminist sisters and feminists to our Marxist brothers. The gravest danger facing us right now is that we will settle for this hyphen ... as a self-explanation ... a counter, a cipher, instead of a project.... What intervenes in this relationship of two terms is desire, on every level. Hyphen as wish. We have heard its whisperings.
A hyphen seems such a formal, grammatical device; and yet Bailey turned it into poetry, by using it to invoke something quite different—the “desire” to bring together the two elements it separated. Full theoretical reconciliation became less important than long-range vision and political aspiration.
My second major attempt to make my case for the role of the political in the history of women was the centerpiece of a symposium on “Politics and Culture in Women’s History,” first delivered at the 1978 annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, under the title “Feminism and Women’s History” and published, also in Feminist Studies,
in 1980. (See Chapter 3
.) My concern was that not just suffragism but the whole political dimension of women’s history was getting short shrift, and with it, attention to the character of women’s subordination.6
The women’s liberation movement had opened up the meaning of the word political
through its claim that “the personal is the political,” that is, that power relationships characterized even the most seemingly private of encounters between men and women, from lovemaking to
housekeeping. I embraced this expanded definition but also wanted to restore something of the more organized, collective, and public dimension to politics and to indicate that, ultimately, feminist goals had to be won at this level.
Much more polemical than “The Radicalism of the Woman Suffrage Movement,” “Politics and Culture” needs to be set in the particular context of that moment. After less than a decade, the field of women’s history was on the verge of achieving academic legitimacy, as a whole series of strong first monographs appeared, drawing professional attention and students.7
The idea of a historical practice influenced by a political movement outside the university was by no means seen as professionally acceptable. “Women’s history” smacked too much of a constituency, a clientele, a partisan perspective. I was concerned that, just as women’s history was beginning to find acceptance in the academy, the intellectual legitimacy of bringing openly feminist questions to the field was coming under attack, and my argument was meant to alert women’s historians to this threat.8
Despite this sense of an external threat to my young field, the article I wrote was a challenge to developments within the feminist community of women’s historians. One could say I was looking for aspects of women’s history practice that conceded too much to, or coincided too closely with, the apolitical spirit of academic history. I argued that women’s history was taking shape around an interpretive framework associated with the term women’s culture,
which left little room for the place of feminist politics. Women’s culture, I contended, was an interpretation that focused on women’s ability to relocate themselves away from the pressures and limitations of male dominance in an environment defined more by their own repressed needs and perspectives; I preferred a more frontal attack on male privilege. As Alice Echols has argued, feminism in the 1970s was making its own move in this direction, but with a self-consciously ideological case for the necessity of establishing separate institutions for and by women.9
As several of the other symposium participants pointed out at the time, my definition of the historical phenomenon of women’s culture was not as precise as my criticisms of it were pointed.10
Did I mean antebellum women’s arguments in defense of separate spheres; forms of social
activism, such as moral reform and temperance, that rested on notions of women’s distinctive (and superior) morality; ideologies resting on notions of the difference of the sexes rather than on their common humanity; women’s intimacies with one another; or all of the above? With respect to the actual period in question, I was trying to locate women’s rights ideas in opposition to antebellum notions about the special virtues and distinct integrity of “woman’s sphere,” especially as these ideas were embraced and expressed by women. At a more general level, my argument was that some of the resources necessary to envision and forge truly different power relations between the sexes needed to be taken from the hands of men themselves. Again to rely on an expression that came later, I was disagreeing with Audre Lorde’s famous slogan that “the master’s tools” could never “dismantle the master’s house.–11
In this I was influenced by the venerable Caribbean historian C. L. R. James, who had briefly been my teacher at Northwestern in 1969. James’s assumption was the opposite of Lorde’s: the tools the oppressed most needed were precisely those of the master, turned to their own purposes.12
Rereading “Politics and Culture” now, I find it one of my more dated articles, precisely because it was so keyed to the developments of the moment. I was motivated by the continuing disregard for the subject of suffragism (even a favorable critic of my work pointed to the “pallid nature” of suffrage as a demand);1...