Author Elaine Weiss Brings Women’s Suffrage Talk to the NHIOP

September 13, 2019

By Alexis Soucy

On the centennial anniversary of New Hampshire’s ratification of the 19th Amendment, the New Hampshire Institute of Politics (NHIOP) hosted award-winning author Elaine Weiss to speak on her latest book, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote (Viking, 2018).

The Woman’s Hour focuses on the six week battle fought by suffragists in Nashville during the summer of 1920. Thirty-five of the necessary 36 states had ratified the amendment, and suffragists saw Tennessee as their best hope for ratification before the 1920 presidential election.

In her talk, Weiss explained that by 1920, women had been fighting for the right to vote for 72 years. She centered her Bookmark Series talk on key events that helped suffragists win the right to vote, including New Hampshire’s role in the movement.

New Hampshire’s own Marilla Ricker began testing the state's prohibitions against women voting in 1870 by showing up to vote on Election Day. Susan B. Anthony inspired this charge, and by the 1872 presidential election, women throughout the country had joined in. Anthony, known as “the woman who dared to vote,” was arrested and convicted of illegal voting in a federal election as an example to other women.

“They tried every political angle,” said Weiss, “including going straight to presidents.” Weiss shared how President Theodore Roosevelt not only supported suffragists, but also a federal amendment for suffrage. The media negatively reported Roosevelt’s position however, causing him to lessen his support.

Many advertisements and cartoons at the time were aimed at men, and Weiss explained the overall message was, “If women won political equality, what would they ask for next?”

The most passionate anti-suffragists, according to Weiss, were actually women. “They thought it would lead to an unhealthy shift in gender roles and saw women’s suffrage as a threat to their traditions,” she explained.

In addition, Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists thought African American men needed the right to vote before women did. “It’s not the woman’s hour,” Weiss said they told the suffragists. “The woman’s hour will have to wait.” 

According to Weiss, a third generation of suffragists soon arrived, and they were not willing to wait. “There’s often a split having to do with strategies and tactics in movements; this was the split in the suffragist movement,” she said.

The new generation of suffragists began trying things that had never been done before. They picketed President Woodrow Wilson and protested on the steps of the Capitol and the White House. As a result, they were arrested, jailed, and assaulted. “They were just trying to break the movement,” said Weiss.

A federal amendment was finally sent to the states for ratification in June 1919. Due to the summer recess, most legislatures were not in session—causing the governor to call a special session requiring legislators to come in and vote. According to Weiss, special sessions were not common in New Hampshire, but Governor John Bartlett had “political courage” to support women and make the call. 

On September 10, 1919, New Hampshire became the 16th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, expanding the right to vote to women. It became law on August 18, 1920, just in time for the presidential election in November.

“Social change is slow, and political change is hard,” Weiss concluded. “There is still much work to be done... we must make it easier, not harder, to vote.”