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CSotD: Provocative Women

We’ll take a break for a review of what I’m going to call a “provocative book,” a graphic history of the women’s suffrage movement through the eyes, and pens, of 32 female cartoonists.

And let me start by recommending you buy a copy: You can purchase a PDF now or preorder a print version (August release) from Little Red Bird Press here.

Which I say up front because, when I say the book is provocative, I mean that in the best way: I wish I could sit around a large table with these women and perhaps a keg of beer .

It provokes thought, it could provoke a very lively conversation.

There are places in it where I got taken to school, and there are places in it where I wish they’d included something more or something different, and there are, alas, a couple of places — only a very few — where I’m pretty sure they’re wrong.

All in all, it’s a lovely book and, again, you should get a copy so you can be taken to school and forced to think and perhaps inspired to argue.

Start here:

I’ve had it up to here with “graphic histories” done by an artist who is either a mediocre storyteller or a bad historian, but who produces a short series of panels that leave you wondering about the rest of the story, parts of which are flat wrong.

Here — by contrast — we’ve got more than 30 artists offering snapshots of varying length over 200-some pages of well-reasoned, well-told stories.

I thought the piece on Victoria Woodhull was, at 11 pages, far more extensive than her place in history deserves, but Cait Zellers was having so much fun that it made terrific reading.

Woodhull was one of the most colorful characters in the movement, after all, so why not give her some extra ink? And we did learn about her 50-some years ago in Social Studies. It’s nice to get a more positive view of her contributions from Zellers than we ever did from our textbooks.

 

And the book is also sparked by some short pieces, like this single-page discussion of bicycles by Meggie Ramm, which is kind of the opposite of the Victoria Woodhull chapter because it concisely references something that really was a very big deal.

Bicycles were a major topic in the society of their time, and not just because they were easier to ride if you wore those pantaloons popularized by Amelia Bloomer, who also gets a place in the book.

 

Meanwhile, it’s not surprising that the bold, athletic, audacious women of the circus were feminists and suffragists, but it hadn’t occurred to me.

And now it has. They started it. Billie Jean simply made it more respectable.

 

On the topic of being taken to school, I was surprised, but not shocked by the idea that the massive “History of Women’s Suffrage” that takes up three volumes on my tablet was (A) compiled by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton with a few others, and (B) is seen as selectively edited and somewhat self-serving.

But Ally Shwed, who put this project together, makes a compelling case in that chapter, so, yes, I’m surprised, but no, I’m not shocked.

 

And I hope other people will be taken to school by Whit Taylor’s straightforward debunking of the … how can I say this? … cooning of Sojourner Truth, who, as she well argues, was turned from an articulate proponent of both abolition and women’s rights into some kind of minstrel show curiosity.

 

And let me step in here to attach a copy of the original report on her speech, which might be a good time to mention that I researched and wrote a history of the Women’s Suffrage Movement for kids, that included this chapter about Truth and truth.

Which brings us to a point of provocation, which is that I take a different tack on the issue of racism and suffrage.

It’s certainly true that many (white) suffragists were as racist as other white folks — and don’t get me started on Alice Paul — but the split between abolition and suffrage was largely pragmatic: To fight for both seemed likely to achieve neither.

Moreover, opposition to the 14th Amendment was very much based on its insertion of the word “male” into the Constitution for the first time. Advocates of voting rights are said to have felt that suggesting votes for all ex-slaves rather than just the male half would prove overwhelming to the South, preventing ratification, and so purposely excluded women.

That view may not be the main point, it’s certainly a major point.

And, by the way, Frederick Douglass (who gets his own chapter in this book) remained a close friend of Susan B. Anthony literally to his dying day: He died of a heart attack after coming home from one of her national women’s rights conventions.

 

I think the conversation on that topic could be civil, particularly since Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris raise the topic and address it squarely.

 

Another topic raised and addressed well is 19th Century homosexuality, which, as one might suspect, was a major part of suffrage and feminism.

Leda Zawacki correctly notes that it was no big deal in those days, to which I would add that it wasn’t just the women: James Buchanan seems to have been our first gay president, but we have no “proof” because, apart from a bit of gossip and a few jokes, nobody really gave a damn.

Quibble: I’d have welcomed a chapter on Willard in the context of the alliance between the suffrage and temperance movements, because marital laws of the time made them natural allies. A drunkard could go through the family’s financial resources and brutalize the family, but, if she left him, she’d likely lose not only all her property but custody of their children.

Also, the emergence of the WCTU in the suffrage movement inspired the liquor industry to shovel massive funds into anti-suffrage promotional material, since they didn’t need a crystal ball to see Prohibition coming down the road.

However, it is merely a quibble: I was delighted to see significant coverage of Virginia Minor, whose challenge of voting laws went to the Supreme Court but is often overshadowed by Susan B. Anthony’s far less significant attempt to vote — a triumph of celebrity over substance.

There are, however, a couple of things that would not have gotten past this editor:

In the opening summary of women’s rights, it’s stated that, in the 19th century, women “could not attend college.” At the start of the century, yes, but the first women’s colleges opened well before the Civil War.

Worse, that section repeats the myth that men were legally allowed to beat their wives with a stick no wider than their thumb. Simply not true.

And for some reason, the famous image of Inez Milholland at the 1913 procession is misidentified as Glenna Smith-Tinnin. I don’t mind that Milholland isn’t mentioned in the book, though she’s shown on the cover, but this is not an obscure error.

Finally, a major objection to a chapter on the Iroquois Confederacy, in part because their matriarchal (not just matrilinear) culture is severely underplayed — “The Tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy allowed women to exert political authority” suggests there was some decision made. Their power was, and remains, an absolute given.

And depicting Iroquois people in Northern Plains garb with tepees in the background is like showing Germans poling gondolas down the canals of Berlin.

It simply won’t do and is drastically out of place in a book that has several well-researched chapters on the struggles of women in other minorities.

I save that for last because I still think you should buy the book. This is an excellent — and provocative — piece of graphic history.

 

Well, not quite last: Here’s your reward for reading through a longer-than-usual, more argumentative than usual piece.

Feminist, suffragist and pioneering journalist
Nellie Bly interviews Susan B. Anthony.

 

 

 

Community Comments

#1 nancy o.
May/19/2020
@ 8:05 am

The myth about “rule of thumb” is also proudly displayed at the Women’s Rights Museum in Seneca Falls, run by the National Park Service.

I’m making an effort (yes, call it my bucket list, if you must) to visit National Parks in every one of the 50 states. So far, the Women’s Rights Museum is the only one that’s disappointed me.

#2 Richard S West
May/19/2020
@ 4:42 pm

I applaud this book and any serious graphic treatment of history. But the pedant in me must add to your error list. The bicycle craze that freed women from the constraints of the dress and encouraged exercise happened in the 1890s, before the advent of the automobile. So they were not escaping “chauffeurs and cars.”

#3 Mike Peterson
May/19/2020
@ 5:21 pm

Yeah, you’re right about that. Bicycles freed people in large part because automobiles weren’t serious transportation yet.

My grandfather told me about the rich folks who owned a car and would come down into town and drive around … then hire a horse to tow the thing back up to their house on the hill. Hence the phrase “Sunday Drivers” because the nerds and geeks were working out the issues around the relatively new invention while rich folks simply played with them.

Bicycles were huge — the number of articles about them well outweighed their actual significance. But, as you say, it was in the days before automobiles were a significant means of transportation.

#4 phil von neupert
May/19/2020
@ 5:55 pm

The Feminist Movement has had its twists and turns, even in my lifetime. I remember as a kid in the early 70’s being pinned against a grocery store wall by a radical feminist, for the crime of opening the door for her, and saying “after you, ma’am.” I was treated to a profanity-laced rant about how women were strong, and didn’t need men to open doors for them, and that the word “ma’am” was insulting and demeaning. I still open doors for women; at least nowdays they say “Thank you!”

#5 Mike Peterson
May/20/2020
@ 9:51 am

The early days were, indeed, a little rocky. But I only remember one of those encounters and she was nuts across the board — radical paranoia that made even her allies wish she’d STFU a lot more than she did. I was stunned at the moment but then considered the source and shrugged it off as one more excess.

#6 phil von neupert
May/20/2020
@ 12:23 pm

Yeah, Mike; movements attract nut-jobs. I can laugh about it now, but I was only 7 years old at the time, so it was especially traumatic. There was a lot of crazy stuff going on back then. I remember seeing a television program that showed women how to gratify themselves, so they wouldn’t need a man to do it. I’m not kidding. It was either on PBS or the local college UHF station. The real craziness only lasted a few years. When the Equal Rights Ammendment failed to be ratified, it was pretty much over. I have to wonder if the radicalism of the early ’70’s didn’t have a lot to do with its failure.

#7 Mike Peterson
May/20/2020
@ 2:08 pm

There was a lot of money behind the failure of the ERA, just as there was a lot of money behind the delay in the 19th Amendment.

The ERA had a lot of good, solid backing by good, solid women, but, just as suffragists were mocked more often than supported, there was a lot of focus on screwballs and extremists and stupid talk about unisex bathrooms.

Relevant to this website, it’s easier to draw political cartoons showing ERA proponents as overweight, unattractive lesbians than as “regular folks” (or trim, attractive lesbians, for that matter).

There’s a biopic of Phyllis Schlafly streaming on one of the services but having lived through it in real time I have no desire to repeat the experience.

Though it does make me wonder if they’ll do one on Anita Bryant next.

#8 phil von neupert
May/20/2020
@ 4:45 pm

I remember quite a few very unflattering cartoons of Anita Briant back then, but not many depicting ERA proponents as you describe. I’m sure they existed, just not in the newspapers my parents read. I really meant no offense, I just thought I’d share a few humorous anecdotes. I’ll STFU now.

#9 Michael Rapaport
May/21/2020
@ 6:26 am

I have always fought for women’s rights simply because it is right. But lately when asked I simply say “all you need is to have a daughter like I have and nothing further need be explained.

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