The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote

  • By Elaine Weiss
  • Viking
  • 416 pp.
  • Reviewed by Mariko Hewer
  • March 26, 2018

A ripping account of the epic battle for parity at the ballot box.

The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote

When telling a well-known historical story, it’s hard to make a foregone conclusion seem like a nail-biter — after all, we already know the result. Yet in The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote, Elaine Weiss lends the outcome of women’s suffrage, finally achieved in 1920, a sense of uncertainty and urgency.

Weiss’ dense summary of the struggle to ratify the 19th Amendment focuses on the final frontier. The book recounts the battle fought between the suffragists (Suffs) and their counterparts, the Antis, in Tennessee, the 36th (and therefore last) state needed to approve the federal amendment. Although the reader may at times feel impatient with the amount of time Weiss takes to set the stage, her detailed lead-up to the climax is worth it.

The cast of characters defending their stakes in the cause is stunningly complex. Three women are central to the narrative: Carrie Chapman Catt, a 30-year leader of the suffrage cause, had a “sly, thin-lipped smile, piercing blue eyes, and arched eyebrows that made her look either surprised, amused or annoyed depending upon how she deployed them.”

Josephine Pearson, president of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, “knew she was doing God’s will, fulfilling a sacred vow to her beloved mother, who had understood the dangers of female suffrage.”

And feisty Sue White, deputy of militant Women’s Party leader Alice Paul, was called the “Lady Warrior” and was well-liked everywhere she went. Men and women “respected her intelligence, appreciated her sense of fairness, marveled at her energy, enjoyed her sense of humor.”

Around Catt, Pearson, and White circle a multitude of Suffs, Antis, lobbyists, and politicians, many of whose motivations (and corresponding decisions) are subject to the mood of the day. The male legislators who preside over the women’s fate, in particular, are maddeningly changeable; they make, and break, promises according to their latest conversation with an advocate for or against the cause.

Into this already intricate web of intrigue, Weiss weaves a sense of near desperation. The Tennessee gubernatorial primary is quickly approaching, and whoever is chosen has the power to convene a special session on the Woman’s Issue — or not. Both sides, therefore, are scrambling to recruit enough legislators to carry the day if the session does take place.

Weiss describes the situation thus:

“The suffragists’ seven-decade quest for the vote was being squeezed into a mad dash; the Antis’ cherished goal of protecting American civilization was being condensed into a tight time frame. And despite all the frenetic activity, ratification remained totally unpredictable; as the days passed, the uncertainties seemed only to multiply.”

At times, The Woman’s Hour can feel labyrinthine, due not only to the number of people involved in the fight, but also to the author’s in-depth analysis of a six-week period of nonstop activity.

Mostly, though, Weiss’ attention to the small things pays off. She writes with wry humor, for example, of one of the strategies employed by both sides to sway legislators at the Hermitage Hotel, a hub of activity where many of the main characters are ensconced:

“Downstairs, in the Hermitage lobby, a strange sort of beauty pageant was taking place. Anti headquarters had been alerted that the prettiest young Suffs were being deployed to mingle with the legislators in the lobby…Alarmed, the Antis summoned a bevy of their own comely supporters.”

The men being courted, writes Weiss, “certainly did not mind being caught in this middle, cajoled by cute representatives of both sides, and the Hermitage lobby was a smoky paradise for the uncommitted lawmaker.”

Lest we become too bogged down by the details, however, the author does a good job of helping us keep track of the key players and their storylines. Although concentrating primarily on the women’s activism and advocacy, she also gives us background information on some of the more prominent male actors. This is no mere tit for tat; it allows readers to better understand the political and legislative climate of the times.

According to Weiss, most of the men are attempting to use the Woman’s Issue to their political advantage — an understandable, if rather cowardly, position. The Republican and Democratic parties are grappling with the same issue: Some on each side are tepidly pro-ratification, but they face a vocal subset that is ardently against it.

Should ratification come to pass, however, each party wants to be responsible for accomplishing the feat, as the winner likely will garner a large percentage of the coveted female vote.

If the political needle refuses to be moved, it is not for lack of trying on the women’s part. Both Suffs and Antis crisscross the state, attempting to sway legislators in their favor, often causing more fear and furor than their diminutive physical status and polite manners would suggest possible.

Catherine Flanagan, a young and promising Suff, seems to have worn her shoe leather thin tracking down the men who held her future in their hands. One of them “had no telephone and lived many miles down a badly rusted road; two miles from the lawmaker’s house she had to abandon the jitney and walk, as the road was impassable. She was drenched by thunderstorms, but finally made it to his door…He refused to pledge but promised to deliberate on the matter.”

Pearson, hurrying to Nashville as the fight begins in earnest, “was dusty from the soot flying into her train’s open windows and a bit stiff from the hard wooden-slat seat, but she didn’t mind the discomforts.” In short, this battle was hard-fought and, for the suffragists, hard-won.

Elaine Weiss’ book is a well-written, well-thought-out work set in a decisive historical moment. For readers eager to learn more about woman’s suffrage and for history lovers in general, it is a must-read.

Mariko Hewer is a born-and-raised Washingtonian whose hobbies include reading, running, and writing. Her favorite superhero is Daisy Johnson and her favorite food is saag paneer.

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