Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women

Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women

Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women

Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women

Synopsis

Margaret Finnegan's pathbreaking study of woman suffrage from the 1850s to the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 reveals how activists came to identify with consumer culture and employ its methods of publicity to win popular support through carefully crafted images of enfranchised women as "personable, likable, and modern."

Drawing on organization records, suffragists' papers and memoirs, and newspapers and magazines, Finnegan shows how women found it in their political interest to ally themselves with the rise of consumer culture--but the cost of this alliance was a concession of possibilities for social reform. When manufacturers and department stores made consumption central to middle-class life, suffragists made an argument for the ballot by comparing good voters to prudent comparison shoppers. Through suffrage commodities such as newspapers, sunflower badges, Kewpie dolls, and "Womanalls" (overalls for the modern woman), as well as pantomimes staged on the steps of the federal Treasury building, fashionable window displays, and other devices, "Votes for Women" entered public space and the marketplace. Together these activities and commodities helped suffragists claim legitimacy in a consumer capitalist society. Imaginatively interweaving cultural and political history, Selling Suffrage is a revealing look at how the growth of consumerism influenced women's self-identity.

Excerpt

I first learned about the American woman suffrage movement by watching Saturday morning cartoons in the mid-1970s. Interspersed between the weekly fare of smart-alecky animals, death-defying superheroes, and sugar-coated cereal commercials, the American Broadcasting Company used to show a series of short, animated, educational spots entitled Schoolhouse Rock (still on the air today). Along with segments on grammar and mathematics, the series included several pieces on American history, one of which summarized the fight for the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. With a catchy tune and a hip-looking heroine, “Sufferin' Thru Suffrage” revealed that women themselves demanded the ballot, that they took to the streets on behalf of their principles, and that, ultimately, democracy triumphed.

Since I began this project, that cartoon's images and musical refrains have randomly intruded on my consciousness. Initially, I linked the memory to my “sufferin' thru” the researching and writing of the dissertation that was to become this book. Upon further reflection, I realized that my recollection also revealed a lot about the dialogical nature of historical practice. This Saturday morning entertainment highlights for me the engagement between my own past and present, and between past and present interpretations of the woman suffrage movement. It reminds me that history always reflects conversations between interpreter and interpreted, and between bygone events and current circumstances. Some scholars bemoan the lack of concrete affirmations and fixed representations that such an open-ended model of historical practice suggests, but these continuous dialogues make the study of history dynamic and exciting. They provoke new questions about old, familiar subjects, and uncover fresh, meaningful perspectives for understanding . . .

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