Vote and Voice: Women's Organizations and Political Literacy, 1915-1930

By L'Eplattenier, Barbara E. | Composition Studies, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Vote and Voice: Women's Organizations and Political Literacy, 1915-1930


L'Eplattenier, Barbara E., Composition Studies


Vote and Voice: Women's Organizations and Political Literacy, 1915-1930. by Wendy B. Sharer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. 208 pages.

Although the push for female suffrage is often seen as the highpoint of 20th century women's activism, women's enfranchisement did not result in masses of women voting at the polls. Instead, the dreaded "women's vote" failed to materialize, and women's voices and concerns remained muted within the political sphere. This was due in great part to the fact that women didn't have significant access and clout to participate in the established political system. Wendy Sharer's new book Vote and Voice: Women's Organization and Political Literacy, 1915-1930 examines how two women's groups-the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and the League of Women Voters (LWV)-worked to challenge the structures of political discourse in the decades after the 19th Amendment passed. Sharer's book is a carefully researched, well-documented, comprehensive analysis of the "larger processes of persuasions" in order to "provide a broad view of the types of literate practices the organizations used to influence the worlds around them" (10). Grounded in primary research, this volume presents a previously untold, vital piece of the history of women's rhetorical contributions in the United States.

In chapter 1, Sharer describes pre-suffrage sites of women's political activity-such as settlement houses, abolitionist groups, suffrage and temperance organization-and the rhetorical tactics used by these groups. (Many of the women active in the WILPF and LWV had previously worked with these types of organizations.) This activism not only informed the work done by WILPF and LWV, but also laid the ground work for future activism. They helped create the social climate in which the WILPF and the LWV functioned.

The first half of the book presents the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Using a wide variety of diverse primary sources, Sharer describes the formation, organization, and rhetorical positioning of this organization. Basing their ethos in motherhood, the organization worked to change methods of international diplomacy and promote peace. As mothers, they argued, women saw war in terms of loss of human life and harm, rather than in the masculine terms of economic results and conquering. A feminine perspective-and the accompanying moral superiority-needed to be included within traditional diplomatic structures in order to "fix" international diplomacy. The WILPF's goals included more women in diplomatic spheres, the restructuring of diplomatic bodies, revised methods of negotiation, and a transformed role of the press. In order to make change, the WILPF drew on those strategies that had been successful in the suffrage movement: mass mailings; petitions; educational publications and publicity; artistic measures such as plays, murals, vaudeville, songs, and movies; rejection of government sanctioned (and developed) "war" curriculum; use of a "peace curriculum"; and rhetorical training for members. Sharer also notes the difficulties and limitations of these activities against a nation primed for war and an exceptionally hostile press. Despite the public's response, the WILPF worked hard to create an environment in which discussions about pacifism and reform in international relations could take place.

The second half of the book takes up a similar discussion of the League of Women Voters. Carrie Chapman Catt knew the difficulties faced by women after they got the vote. Political parties were so resistant to women that one activist complained that "partisan attitudes toward women had actually declined since the passage of the 19th Amendment." (94). Political issues became more narrowly defined to exclude "women's issues," women were appointed as "alternative" delegates to conventions, and men held ultimate rejection power over any appointment (whether voted on or appointed by another official). …

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