“I must sojourn once to the ballot-box before I die,” the formerly enslaved abolitionist Sojourner Truth reportedly said in 1867. “I hear the ballot-box is a beautiful glass globe, so you can see all the votes as they go in. Now, the first time I vote I’ll see if the woman’s vote looks any different from the rest — if it makes any stir or commotion. If it don’t inside, it need not outside.”
Though Truth would not live to see the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women the vote over 50 years later in 1920, it would take the decades-long struggle of countless more suffragists “making a stir” to ensure the vote for women. Now, on the 100th anniversary of voting rights for women, the Wilkinson Public Library has chosen “Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women who Fought for the Right to Vote” by Susan Ware as this year’s One Book, One Canyon community read. One hundred copies of the book are available for free, and an author talk with Ware will take place via Zoom on Wednesday from 6-7:30 p.m.
“The voices represented in ‘Why They Marched’ are very different from the Susan B. Anthony stories we usually hear,” observed Joanna Spindler, an adult programs specialist at the library. “They are the voices of women of color, poor women, women who didn't fit into the mold of their times, and they all spoke powerfully and worked together to help win women the right to vote. In today's world, we're seeing an ever deeper need for collaboration between folks of different backgrounds to work together politically, to elevate one another's voices, to get things done together.”
Ware, a biographer and historian of women’s political and cultural history, chose the stories of 19 women for the book, activists whose lives have been often overlooked by history because of their skin color, religion or social class. Using her narrative talent to bring these vivid characters to life in mini-biographies that “read like fiction,” according to programs specialist Laura Colbert, Ware introduces women such as Mary Church Terrell, a multi-lingual African American activist; Emmaline W. Wells, a Mormon woman in a polygamous marriage; and Rose Schneiderman, a labor organizer on New York’s Lower East Side.
“One of the best ways to draw people into history is by telling stories,” said Ware. “By choosing women who had really good stories, it proved a way to put a human face on the broader process of social change.”
Ware also sought to highlight women who were “not well known, and often fairly ordinary, until they just decided to do something like get on a horse and ride across Massachusetts on their own for four months with no money,” disseminating information about women’s suffrage. Ware showcases a historical object in each chapter, such as in this case, the saddlebags used by the young widow Claiborne Catlin on her equestrian journey for the cause. Seeing the objects, Ware said, can “help make history more concrete.”
“If you see a suffrage button, or a flyer, or a cookbook, it just makes it real,” she reflected. “It’s not some big amorphous social movement, it’s someone pinning a suffrage pin on her dress before she goes out to march.”
While women may have won the vote 100 years ago, thanks to the efforts of these 19 women and many more, history can provide many illuminating and even hopeful lessons for the present moment. In an age when many look at the modern political stage with a sense of hopelessness before the scale of social woes, a dive into history can provide instructive lessons for what worked, how things got done and by whom, and the necessity of a long game, grit and determination to effect meaningful social change.
Stories from history can “help us see a way forward, and help us see what’s happening now as part of a larger story that’s going to have ups and downs and ups again,” Ware noted.
“The story didn’t end in 1920,” she observed. “It’s part of this larger continuum. These values and ideals are still incomplete. The struggle is ongoing and will go on long after I'm gone. It feels very empowering to know that when I vote in this election, I really will be standing on the shoulders of the suffragists who won women the right to vote a hundred years before, and that’s a very powerful sense of being part of a larger story.”
To sign up for a free copy of “Why They Marched” and to register for the author talk, visit telluridelibrary.org or stop by the Wilkinson Public Library.