Blogs > Cliopatria > LaNitra Walker: Review of Jean Baker's Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists

Dec 4, 2005 11:58 am

LaNitra Walker: Review of Jean Baker's Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists

[LaNitra Walker is a doctoral candidate in art history at Duke University.]

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about what it means to be a feminist. More specifically, American women are trying to find new and better ways to strike a balance between careers and motherhood at a time when more women are wondering whether the glass ceilings that kept their mothers in the kitchen and out of the boardroom are actually broken or just cracked. As the debate rages in venues ranging from television talk shows to the halls of academia, the question remains: Are women any closer to gender equality now than they were a hundred years ago?

In her latest biographical study, Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists, Goucher College historian Jean H. Baker reveals that women have grappled with this same question for well over a century. Baker, best known as the biographer of James Buchanan and Mary Todd Lincoln, has written an engaging and accessible book about five American feminists: Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard Scott, and Alice Paul. In addition to telling their stories through close reading of their letters, diaries, and speeches, Baker manages to weave their stories together, giving us a suffragists’ family tree, of sorts.

Baker presents us with a side of the suffragists that other biographies downplay: the nitty-gritty of their personal lives. These stories and anecdotes humanize the women by showing us that behind those tightly pulled coiffures and corsets stood women who believed that gender equality would allow women to become better mothers, daughters, sisters, lovers, and wives. Baker’s description of Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell’s courtship depicts Stone as the perfect example of a woman who wants to be desired for her intellect more than her figure. Stone, a charismatic abolitionist lecturer, met Blackwell when she gave an antislavery lecture at his hardware store in Cincinnati. By then, Stone had already worked to pay her own tuition at Oberlin, the progressive liberal arts college that allowed both women and black men to matriculate. In 1850, Blackwell appealed to Stone’s passion for abolitionist causes by rescuing an 8-year-old fugitive slave girl traveling through Ohio who was being forcibly returned to her master in Kentucky. Lucy was immediately impressed, and their courtship led to a wedding ceremony in 1855 that could easily have been the subject of an announcement in a recent New York Times Sunday Styles section. Determined to subvert the traditional marriage conventions that forced women to become their husbands’ property, the couple removed the word “obey” from their vows, and Henry renounced his claim to legal authority over his wife.

Although they were intelligent, educated, and highly motivated women, all of the suffragists bore the scars of nineteenth-century womanhood. Female sexuality was not a topic of open discussion, so all of the women struggled to develop a healthy understanding of it. Anthony and Willard preferred lesbian relationships. Stanton, despite the fact that she had seven children, took advantage of the few available methods of birth control. But she still longed “to be free from housekeeping and children so as to have time to read, think, and write.” Eventually, child rearing replaced suffrage as Stanton’s top priority, a choice that her close friend Anthony never forgave. Finally, Paul, the only suffragist who lived to see the passage of the nineteenth amendment, preferred to expend her emotional energy on her doctoral research on women’s rights and her relentless attempt to convince President Woodrow Wilson to support constitutional rights for women. ...

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