Analyzing the History of Women's Politics in the Shadow of the Millennium

Article excerpt

Sarah Mercer Judson, "Analyzing the History of Women's Politics in the Shadow of the Millennium," Labour/Le Travail 43 (Spring 1999), 195-202.

Kristi Anderson, After Suffrage: Women and Partisan and Electoral Politics Before the New Deal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1996).

Suzanne Marilley, Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States, 1820-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1996).

Susan Marshall, Splintered Sisterhood, Gender and Class in the Campaign Against Woman Suffrage (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1997).

AS WE APPROACH the 21st century how should scholars evaluate women's politics in the United States over the last two centuries? Should women's politics be seen as a tireless progression toward women's suffrage, culminating in 1920 with the Nineteenth Amendment? Is the study of women's politics defined by the participation of white, middle-class women? Have we succeeded in uncovering how race and class shaped women's political struggles? Did all activist women take the same positions? And finally, how should we understand the boundaries of women's politics? This review looks at three recent books that address women's political participation in the context of the United States women's suffrage movement. These three books: Suzanne Marilley, Woman's Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States, 1820-1920, Kristi Anderson, After Suffrage: Women and Partisan and Electoral Politics Before the New Deal, and Susan Marshall, Splintered Sisterhood, Gender and Class in the Campaign Against Woman Suffrage, explore how white women acted politically before and immediately following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Taken together, these works offer new insights into the history of gender and politics in the United States.

Recent scholarship in US women's political history is expanding our knowledge of the history of women's political empowerment by challenging the traditional narrative of women's pursuit of a political voice. Scholars are now interrogating the conventional periodization of the women's suffrage movement. They are reconsidering which dates mark significant turning points in women's political history. Should we consider 1837 as the beginning of the women's movement when the first Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women convened, as opposed to 1848, the year of the Seneca Falls Woman's Rights Convention? Is 1920, with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the victory year for women's campaign for the vote? Or is 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act guaranteeing universal suffrage, a more significant milestone in women's political history?

Another related question is whether the definition of politics should be limited to voting and other types of formal political participation. Do people act politically when they cannot vote or attend political meetings? Women's history has contributed a great deal to our expanding understanding of what politics is and has been in the United States. Scholars have shown how with the rise of the white middle-class in the US, both physical and cultural space was divided along the lines of gender, with middle-class women occupying the private sphere of home and family, and men located in the public sphere of commerce and politics. Victorians associated gender identities with designated spheres, and thus, calculated degrees of manhood or womanhood based on one's proximity to the private or public sphere. Hence, working-class and African American women, whose lives took them outside the conventional gendered spheres were often not considered "true women."

By the turn of the century, many white middle-class women rebelled against the idea of women's separate sphere. They constructed different strategies to justify and ease their entrance into the public sphere. Many women participated in reform efforts and joined the women's club movement, often justifying their involvement in political issues on the basis of their special interests as women, mothers, and potential mothers. …