There were 42 long, arduous years between the 1878 introduction of the first proposed constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote and the 19th Amendment’s ratification by two-thirds of the states in 1920. Getting the amendment through Congress and the state legislatures took the determined efforts of thousands of women, and, like all people agitating for profound social change, they grappled with difficult questions of strategy and tactics about which they differed.
Tina Cassidy takes a look at the battle in “Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait,’’ a vivid chronicle of the suffrage movement that may prove a bit disappointingly thin for some. The book focuses primarily on the roles of Alice Paul, leader of the most militant suffragist organization, and of President Woodrow Wilson, who finally threw his support behind the 19th Amendment in 1918 after years of waffling.
Cassidy, a former Globe reporter who is now chief content officer at Inkhouse, is the author of a biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and a cultural history of birth practices. She explains in her preface that her strategy was motivated by “the mystery of why Paul was forgotten while Wilson was perpetually deemed a hero” — something of an overstatement.
Arguably, Paul may lack the name recognition of Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but even a cursory Google search will make it apparent she has hardly been left out of the history of women’s suffrage. As for Wilson’s alleged idealization, his appalling record on African-American civil rights and on civil liberties in general has been the subject of criticism since at least the 1960s, as even A. Scott Berg’s generally admiring 2013 biography acknowledged.
That said, Cassidy crafts a lively narrative of the struggle’s final six years, from the Suffrage Parade organized by Paul that filled the streets of Washington the day before Wilson’s inauguration in March 1913 to Senate passage of the amendment in June 1919. (Ratification gets a skimpy seven pages.) She also does a good job sketching Paul’s and Wilson’s lives before they first faced off at a meeting in the Oval Office shortly after the parade.
Her cogent sketch of Paul’s youth limns a fiery progressive who during a 1907-10 stay in England embraced the confrontational tactics of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, was arrested seven times, and went on three hunger strikes, which led to three weeks of forced feeding that permanently weakened her health.
Cassidy’s portrait of Wilson’s early years is less successful as it feels somewhat slanted, emphasizing as it does his Southern roots (he was a child in Georgia during the Civil War) and his defense of slavery and championship of states’ rights in the books he wrote during the long academic career that preceded his entry into politics. Wilson’s decision to run for governor as a progressive Democrat in 1910, she heavily implies, was merely a ploy to get elected.
Cassidy does well with her you-are-there descriptions of the Suffrage Parade and three subsequent meetings between Wilson and suffragists, which led Paul to conclude only militant tactics would prod him to action. Throughout the book, Cassidy draws on contemporary newspaper accounts to colorfully convey what it was like to be in the room or on the streets.
She comes up a bit shorter on analysis and context. There’s no question that Paul was instrumental in pushing for the federal amendment proposed on April 13, 1913, but Cassidy omits to mention that such an amendment had been introduced every year since 1878.
In her discussion of the split between the militants and the suffragist old guard that led Paul’s faction out of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), Cassidy could have offered more. She delineates the views of NAWSA leader Carrie Chapman Catt, who favored a state-by-state approach to winning suffrage, without ever considering the question of the extent to which the state-by-state approach and the campaign for a federal amendment worked together, even though Paul herself acknowledged it when she targeted anti-suffrage Democratic senators up for re-election in states where women had the vote.
Cassidy shows a surer hand in her detailed accounts of the White House picketing Paul launched after Wilson was re-elected, complete with grim details about the picketers’ arrests, harsh sentences to Dickensian workhouses, and the forced feeding of hunger strikers, which aroused national outrage. It may have been the resulting bad publicity that prompted Wilson to finally announce his support for the federal amendment on Jan. 9, 1918, but NAWSA’s leaders believed it was their lobbying that changed his mind.
“Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait?” presents a brisk, readable narrative that would be a pleasure for those who’ve either forgotten or are curious about the saga of women’s suffrage in America. But those seeking a more detailed, thoughtful assessment of the movement and its relevance for 21st-century social justice crusades will be less satisfied.
By Tina Cassidy
Atria, 288 pp., illustrated, $28
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Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s 2018 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.