The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Elaine Weiss
Elaine Weiss

Elaine Weiss Biography

Elaine Elaine holds a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism of Northwestern University. She is an award-winning journalist and writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper's, The New York Times, and The Christian Science Monitor, as well as in reports and documentaries for National Public Radio and Voice of America. A MacDowell Colony Fellow and Pushcart Prize Editor's Choice honoree, she is also the author of Fruits of Victory: The Woman's Land Army in the Great War

Elaine lives in Baltimore, Maryland with her husband, Julian Krolik, a professor of astrophysics at Johns Hopkins University; they have two grown children. When not working at her desk, she can be found paddling her kayak on the Chesapeake Bay. And she votes in every election.

This biography was last updated on 03/01/2018.

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Elaine Weiss discusses The Woman's Hour, the story of how American women won the right to vote, and its relevancy in today's political environment.

You handed the manuscript in the day before the presidential election—a day you thought the first woman would be elected President of the United States. Have your goals for the book changed given the outcome of the election?

Yes, I submitted The Woman's Hour manuscript on the Monday before Election Day 2016, fully expecting that the book would come out in the first term of the first American woman president. How fitting. I pushed the SEND button and the manuscript flew through the ether to the desks of my editor and my agent in NYC. "Hooray. Great timing" they replied. Well. It was great timing—but in a wholly different way than we anticipated. The Woman's Hour is timely in this strange political and cultural moment, when many Americans are standing up and loudly protesting—perhaps for the first time in their lives—storming the legislative halls, even taking to the streets, in opposition to government policies. Forced to protect rights they assumed they'd already won.

This is a book about challenging—resisting—regressive government policies. It's about grassroots activists working for change, fighting inequality, facing down powerful forces—political, corporate, and religious opposition—to women obtaining their equal civil rights. It's about social justice warriors winning their own freedom.

And for those who feel satisfied and gratified by the result of the Presidential election—and this includes a majority of white women voters who voted for the victor—The Woman's Hour is the story of how they won the ballot, too, how they won the power to decide. And they may even find some points of connection to the dedicated Anti-suffrage women, who were, for the most part, cultural and religious conservatives, who feared the social disruptions woman suffrage might bring to the American home and society.

My hope is that the story I tell in The Woman's Hour, the defining battle in Nashville and the saga of the suffrage movement, will reassure a new generation that protest is patriotic. And will inspire American women—and men—to honor the legacy of these warriors for democracy by registering and voting in the next elections.

The Woman's Hour tells a dramatic story of a pivotal event in the 20th century—one that people know happened but have little idea of how or why. What do you hope the reader will take away from your retelling the story of the suffragists and the Anti's ?

The woman suffrage movement really is one of the great civil rights campaigns in our nation's history—it secured the enfranchisement of one-half of the nation's citizens—27 million women—with not one shot fired—and yet we know very little about it. It's rarely taught in school—and if it is mentioned, often cartoonishly over-simplified—and it's rarely portrayed in books of popular narrative history.

I hope readers of The Woman's Hour will begin to understand what this movement meant—its place in American history and the expansion of democracy, its role in changing attitudes towards women—and gain a deeper appreciation for the women who devoted their lives to what they called "The Cause." Readers will get to know these women in a more intimate way: their ambitions, their fears, their courage, the personal price they often paid for their stance against the status quo. Not just the famous leaders, but the devoted foot soldiers of the movement, in the small cities and towns of Tennessee and across the country. The men—some politicians, some in other professions—who truly believed in a broader democracy, and bravely stood up for women's equal rights. Readers will also come to know the "Antis"—the men, but especially the women—who opposed their sisters holding the ballot. Readers will come away with a visceral sense of what it was like to be in that final confrontation in Nashville: the heat and tension and fear; the political pressures bearing down, the enormous stakes involved. And the real uncertainty of the outcome.

Many have forgotten that it took 70 years for women to obtain the right to vote, and far fewer people know that it came down to the 6-week battle in one state, Tennessee. In the book you show how all the core elements of American history - race, class, money, gender, states' rights and power itself play their roles in the events of August 1920. Could you share some examples of this?

We think we know how women won the vote: A bunch of women met at Seneca Falls in hoop skirts and bonnets, then flash-forward to some marches and a few picturesque picket signs, and poof—men decided to give their mothers, wives, and daughters the gift of the vote. That's not how it happened at all—it took seven decades of ceaseless, fearless agitation by three generations of women activists in over 900 local, state and national campaigns to win the vote. These women were often ostracized by their families and churches for their suffrage stance, they were pelted with rotten eggs and pilloried in the press; they were imprisoned and force fed and beaten. They really are the original "She Persisted" and in the process of challenging political norms and cultural taboos and gender stereotypes, the suffragists became adept politicians and great orators and extraordinary leaders. There are many lessons we can—and should—learn from their courage and political sagacity.

Seventy-two years after Elizabeth Cady Stanton, together with Frederick Douglass at Seneca Falls, demanded that women be allowed to vote, the final battle to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is waged in Nashville in the summer of 1920. Because this is the last stand, all the forces—supporting and opposing the Federal Amendment—gather in Nashville to slug it out. And, because this last battle is fought in the South, there is tremendous opposition to the 19th Amendment on racist grounds: woman suffrage would allow black women to vote (at least on paper). So all the core elements of American history—race, class, money, gender, states' rights—and even the ghosts of the Civil War—converge and become explosive in Nashville.

How did you come to this story? Do you have a personal connection to the women you profile in The Woman's Hour?

I stumbled upon the story of the Tennessee ratification vote while researching something else, deep in the Library of Congress. I was tracing how a large bequest to the suffrage cause, made by a celebrated New York woman publisher, was spent. I found some of the money was spent in the campaign to ratify the 19th Amendment, and towards funding that last battle in Nashville. So I steered away from the publisher (though she does make an appearance in the book) realizing that the better story was what happened in Tennessee—those wild six weeks—and this would allow me explore the entire suffrage movement, which, surprisingly, has not received much attention in popular historical writing.

I don't have a personal connection to the suffragists I write about—wish I did—but I do feel a strong affinity with them—and admiration for them. I did have the opportunity to meet a few direct descendants of the women, and men, in my story, and that gave me a valuable personal perspective, and allowed me to deepen the characterizations in the book.

This is not just a book about woman's history but rather a larger look at how we have evolved as a democracy and reacted to those asking for inclusion. A reaction we see playing out again and again. Could you explain further?

At the outset of our democratic experiment, We the People really meant—We the Wealthy White Men—no one else had a voice, or had a vote. In the almost two and a half centuries since, we've seen great pushes to expand that circle, to extend full rights to all American citizens—civil rights and voting rights—but these efforts have been met with equally strong resistance to such widening.

The vote is power—and those who already have power don't care to share it—it's that simple and stark. Restricting certain groups from voting is a tactic long used for political party advantage. We see it in Nashville in 1920, and it's happening again now. It's a constant struggle.

How did the women's suffrage movement affect later movements, such as Civil Rights, or today's Black Lives Matter and Women's March movements? What precedents, if any, did the suffragists set for political activism?

The campaign for woman suffrage was not only a political movement, though the goal and methods were political, it was also a long-term effort to alter societal norms and cultural customs concerning women's roles.

The genius of the woman suffrage movement—its strategies, lobbying tactics, public education efforts, non-violent protest—demonstrations, marches, picketing, civil disobedience—would prove to be a valuable template for later civil rights campaigns of the 20th and 21st centuries. The African-American civil rights era, gay rights campaigns, efforts to secure women's reproductive rights and marriage equality—all took a page from the suffragists, in both their public protests and their political maneuvers. Even the legal strategies and of the suffragist—deciding whether to pursue legal changes state by state or by Federal law—are still useful.

Can you describe any parallels you see between 1920s Nashville and the political climate today with the rise of voter suppression through gerrymandering, corporate entanglement in elections, and an increasing racial divide?

The parallels to today are strong, and unnerving: this is a book about voting rights and voter suppression. About women's rights and gender politics. About states' rights and Federal protections. About corporate money in politics, about culture wars, and about systemic racism. We're dealing with all of those issues today.

1920 was a time of uncertainty in America, and around the world. There was great fear of an aggressive radical movement—communism—making inroads in America. Terrorists' bombs were exploding in American cities. Labor strikes and race riots were erupting around the country. A strengthening of Jim Crow laws and a resurgence of the KKK were stoking racial violence and intimidation, lynching and mob beatings. Prohibition had just gone into effect, sparking gang wars and violent police crackdowns.

Into all this comes the 19th Amendment—with the potential to upend the political status quo. During the battle in Nashville over ratification, we will hear appeals to restore white supremacy and cries to protect states' rights—echoes of what we hear on the news right now. We'll see the Confederate battle flag waved in defiance. And the story unfolds in midst of a bitter presidential election, where the leading candidate runs on a platform of isolationism, and withdrawal from international treaties; his campaign slogan was "America First."

The literary, entertainment, and media industries have experienced a resurgence of discovering the untold stories of American heroes—why is now a good time to shed light on the lesser-known suffragists?

It's startling how little we know about the women who led one of the greatest political and civil rights campaigns in our history; they've simply been absent from our national memory. That's a shame, because they were remarkable, brave, colorful women; patriots and warriors; politicians and revolutionaries. They worked, on the national and local levels, across the country. They shaped the America we live in today. We're somewhat familiar with some of the founders of the movement—Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony ring a bell—but we've rarely been introduced to the women who carried the fight into the 20th century, maneuvered the 19th Amendment through Congress, and led the campaign to victory in 1920. In their time, they were the most famous, and powerful, women in the country: Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, Mary Hay, Anna Shaw, and Abby Scott Baker. Extraordinary, brilliant, fascinating women whom we'll get to know in the course of the book. Then there are the lieutenants, the women who led the bitter suffrage fights in their states and cities, and we'll meet the remarkable, resourceful Tennessee leaders in this story.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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