Vassar’s Rebecca Edwards says "women’s suffrage anniversaries make me yawn"Historians in the News
tags: suffrage, womens history, Rebecca Edwards
This may sound odd coming from a scholar of women’s history and a newly minted legislator, but I think we’ve heard enough about women’s suffrage.
When New York State recently marked the 100th anniversary of its passage of women’s right to vote, I ought to have joined the celebrations enthusiastically. Not only have I spent 20 years teaching women’s history, but last year’s Women’s March in Washington, D.C. was one of the most energizing experiences of my life. Like thousands of others inspired by the experience, I jumped into electoral politics, and with the help of many new friends, I took the oath of office as a Dutchess County, New York legislator at the start of 2018.
So why do women’s suffrage anniversaries make me yawn? Because suffrage—which still dominates our historical narrative of American women’s rights—captures such a small part of what women need to celebrate and work for. And it isn’t just commemorative events. Textbooks and popular histories alike frequently describe a “battle for the ballot” that allegedly began with the famous 1848 convention at Seneca Falls and ended in 1920 with adoption of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For the long era in between, authors have treated “women’s rights” and “suffrage” as nearly synonymous terms. For a historian, women’s suffrage is the equivalent of the Eagles’ “Hotel California”: a song you loved the first few times you first heard it, until you realized it was hopelessly overplayed.
A closer look at Seneca Falls shows how little attention the participants actually focused on suffrage. Only one of their 11 resolutions referred to “the sacred right to the elective franchise.” The Declaration of Sentiments, written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and modeled on the U.S. Declaration of Independence, protested women’s lack of access to higher education, the professions and “nearly all the profitable employments,” observing that most women who worked for wages received “but scanty remuneration.”
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