Tuesday, March 31, 2009

#60 - "Sisters" by Jean H. Baker

I picked up Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists (2005) by Jean H. Baker as part of my long-lasting history kick that started after reading Assassination Vacation. Beyond the fact that women obtained the vote in 1920, I knew embarassingly little about the struggle for women to get the right to vote or the important players. Having grown up with the benefits of the feminist movement but without the struggle, I think I had always assumed that women obtaining the right to vote as well as obtaining further equality generally was just something that would have had to occur naturally with time. I don't think I gave enough credit to the strong, non-conformist women who challenged society's views about women, their role, and their worth, to make all the equality that I take for granted today even possible.

Sisters was a good introduction to the subject of women's suffrage. Baker took five prominent women suffrage leaders and filled out their personal and professional lives in a short biography for each. The women she chose to write about included: Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, and Alice Paul. All the women were remarkably smart, strong, independent thinkers who challenged and changed the world with their unique styles. Stanton attacked what she called "man marriage" and religion while Willard used religion to argue for temperance and wanted women to have the vote because women, who were homemakers and loving mothers, could bring their good influence to society. And Alice Paul personally attacked Wilson's hypocrisy during World War I when he espoused the ideals of democracy while ignoring the twenty million women in his own country who could not vote.

These women faced great obstacles in their struggle, which started in 1848 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton proposed a resolution for women's "inalienable right to the elective franchise" at the Seneca Falls Convention. Her fellow companions were shocked. Her husband left the proceedings, and her father would call her a slut. It wasn't until 72 years later that women finally earned the right to vote, when all the original suffragists had died. In the 20th Century, Alice Paul and her cohorts were harassed, arrested, force-fed and otherwise abused. These women were called she-men and often faced adversity from other women who declared that they trusted their men to take care of them and wanted no part in politics. Finally, I appreciated that Baker did not white wash the history of these women, none of whom were perfect. The entire movement tended to favor white, middle-class women, and all the leaders had their issues with racism, elitism, and nativism.

This book also reminded me of a discussion I had with a couple of women who worked in the Courthouse with me. They were both adamantly opposed to women police officers patrolling in cars alone. They argued that women should always be partnered for their safety. Not surprisingly, I disagreed. Sure, women are sometimes smaller and less strong than men, but that isn't always the case. Also, Police work is risky for all police officers, and both men and women know what they're getting into when they join the force. Female police officers also have the benefits of training, a gun, and back-up, and they shouldn't be treated differently. But during the presidential elections it also made me wonder: if my co-workeres felt that women are so powerless they can't be in a cop car by themselves, how could they think a woman could be president? Can women ever be feminine and equal? Anyway, this book may have started a new kick for me--one into the history of women's rights and the feminist movement. I feel I have a lot to learn.

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