Book Review of "The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote."
Anne Mahoney Fontenot
Weiss, Elaine. The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. Viking, 2018.
“If I had had the slightest premonition of all that was to follow that convention, I fear I should not have had the courage to risk it.” --Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1898
Journalist Elaine Weiss, wrote The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote in 2018, and I selected this year for Vermilionville Living History Museum’s book club because of the suffrage centennial. We hosted a traveling exhibit about the suffrage movement in Louisiana and added this virtual book club to supplement the information. The Woman’s Hour is about Tennessee, and the fight to make it the 36th state to ratify the nineteenth amendment. In twenty-three chapters and an epilogue, Weiss centers the entire book around a few months in the pivotal year of 1920, looking back in time at the personal lives of the suffragists and anti-suffragists and the large political backdrop of the whole movement while always bringing the narrative back to 1920 in Nashville.
For the first fifteen chapters, Weiss vividly paints each panorama from the train ride into Nashville to the childhood experiences that influenced the suffragists and anti suffrage proponents. The suffragists fought for the right to vote and about how that right should be achieved. Weiss focuses on the differing tactics of the Women's Party and the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Although the suffrage movement grew out of the abolitionist movement and black leaders such as Frederick Douglas championed women’s suffrage, white suffragists betrayed the rights of black voters to win the southern ratification.
The atmosphere changes in Chapter 16, when the Tennessee Governor called the special session to vote for the 19th amendment’s ratification. Chapters 16 through 21 detail the tense negotiations on the floor. At the end of the cajoling, negotiating, bribing, and politics, Tennessee ratified the nineteenth amendment by a single vote. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The final chapter takes a grim turn as Weiss summarizes the low voter turnout, voter suppression and violence, and further disenfranchisement based on race. The epilogue is a paragraph by paragraph “what happened to them” in keeping with the character driven style of the whole book.
I loved this book because it gave me an understanding of the larger suffrage movement as well as previously unknown to me historical trivia. Knowing that the Hermitage Hotel had a separate entrance for women and that Warren Harding covered up the existence of a love child for the election, brought to life the year 1920 for me. I was riveted by every chapter, and had to stop and research different topics and explore each new piece of information. I recommend this book for historians, feminists, and any reader who enjoys political strategy and personal drama.
Weiss explores all of the racially charged aspects of the suffrage fight, but her focus was on the white suffragists and anti suffragists that campaigned in Nashville in the summer of 1920. For a fuller picture, supplement this book with African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850–1920 by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn.
“The vote is a power, a weapon of offense and defense, a prayer. Use it intelligently, conscientiously, prayerfully. Progress is calling to you to make no pause. Act,” Carrie Catt to the newly enfranchised women voters in 1920.