Nancy Woloch's Chapter 14 "Feminism and Suffrage" Essay

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Nancy Woloch's Chapter 14 "Feminism and Suffrage" (1994, 2nd ed, pp. 326-363) from the general to the specific and back again. Remarkable to me was how three generations (357) of women reacted to a complex and evolving institutional and social environment to adapt and specialize toward the primary goal of woman suffrage. They achieved this core objective by targeting the strongest leverage, from the woman on the street to their male 'representatives' in the state house, "deliberately and collectively" (Woloch 359), and I add 'persistently,' over five decades (355) through changing leadership and constituent characteristics and preferences. Woloch asks what this achievement contributed toward "the overhaul of attitudes demanded in 1848" (359). The result was a model for accomplishing massive structural social change that led directly from Seneca Falls through the labor movement, the Great Society era Civil Rights Movement, to Stonewall and Section 503 of the Civil Rights Act that became the Americans With Disabilities Act the better part of a century later. While white / male groups still dominate all others in earnings and social power today, none of these accomplishments would have been possible without the difficult work these pioneering women sacrificed many lives to accomplish together.

That being said, some of those choices were difficult, and look mercenary, if not hypocritical from the modern viewpoint they laid the foundations for. While selling out the black woman vote (343) probably was harder for some than others, as evidenced by the difference between Susan B. Anthony's attempts at integration (343) all the way through the opposite extreme of NAWSA taking "advantage of racist arguments when they were useful" (343), if we judge them today, it is from the viewpoint they left us, which we may not have without this difficult tactical decision. We can only pay back those generations of black woman now, by recognizing her sacrifice then, and make up for it with unity today.

Likewise an "impressive women's peace movement" widely supported among…

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This all being said, the sacrifices were difficult for some, maybe not for others; the painful decisions seem to have been tactical rather than rejections in principle, and in easier circumstances may have been different. Achieving the vote took partnership and pragmatism, building on the contribution of the English suffrage movement (351) and the struggle for equality going back to the Underground Railroad. Those women hung out a quilt pointing the way to a freedom and equality which, while still persistently elusive today, is far closer for our generation than it was for theirs. What is important now is for feminists of all genders and heritage, not to succumb to illusions "[t]here is nothing for women to rally around" (Anna Shaw, qtd. In Woloch 358). Knowing this story makes our work seem less of a burden than an obligation, if we can finally rise above "the indifference, the inertia, the apathy of women" (Susan B. Anthony, qtd. In Woloch 328) that may be our only remaining obstacle today.


Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994.

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