A debut history book examines American women’s fight for the vote.
In this first installment of a series, Bennett covers the early decades of the women’s rights movement, concluding shortly after the Civil War. Drawing heavily on letters and published writings, the author shows the collaborative and often contentious nature of 19th-century activism and places it in the context of the present-day, ongoing struggle for equality. The narrative is organized by theme as much as by chronology, with each chapter presenting a question (“What is men’s role in a feminist movement?”; “How do we define our priorities?”) that is answered by the historical figures and events within it. While famous movement leaders like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone all feature prominently, the volume skillfully tells the stories of lesser-known activists (Julia Ward Howe, Angelina Grimke, Prudence Crandall) and gives full attention to the efforts of black women advocating for both suffrage and equality (Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Frances Watkins). Bennett weaves together the many quotations from historical letters, speeches, and newspapers (a full list of citations appears at the end) with a narration that is both casual and of the moment. Stewart stepped back from the cause because “she wasn’t volunteering to be her community’s personal therapist”; Catharine Beecher supported women speaking “almost never, hardly anywhere and not by any means that might possibly effect policy change”; women in one utopian community “organized conventions, gave speeches, and, um, did the dishes.” The result is a highly readable and engaging work of firmly constructed history that serves as an excellent introduction to the topic. Although the book does not break any new ground in historical research or analysis, it does an excellent job of synthesizing and presenting a wide range of sources and details, keeping the many historical figures distinct and offering a narrative that is easy for readers to follow.
A well-written and solidly researched exploration of the 19th-century women’s rights movement.