#94 Elaine Weiss
Elaine Weiss found the locus of action for her book deep in the library archives.
I love this image because it is the stuff writing fantasies are made of: a writer, buried in the depths of newspapers that had been cataloged on microfilm. It was there that she discovered that a member of each of the critical political parties in her book arrived the very same night in Nashville, TN to fight the final battle around the 19th amendment in the US.
Elaine and I talked about the politics of the 19th amendment and how she has managed to write a book that had me on the edge of my seat, even though I knew while reading it that the amendment would ultimately pass - I know I have voted in every election I've been able to since I was 18. But even so, the gift of a good writer is someone who is able to capture the suspense that those experiencing this historical period in real time in the present must have felt.
History doesn't have to be dry or dull. In fact, I was as glued to The Woman's Hour as I have been to any suspense novel I've read. I hope you enjoy listening to us discuss how it came together just as much as I enjoyed diving into its creative backstory. Happy listening!
Discussed in Episode 94 with Elaine Weiss
Elaine has voted in every election. Her latest book The Woman’s Hour is about the lead up to the ratification of the 19th amendment for the women’s right to vote.
Recording bio on International Women’s Day—it’s important for all of us to know about the struggles that it took to get us here and how much farther we still have to go.
It took about four years to write book: two of the years was spent in research and writing, one year for the proposal and conceptual work, and a year of editing, rewriting, and production.
“That is a great story for your next book.” On her editor taking out some of the initial research in the book.
It seems like an intimidating history book but reads more like a thriller.
"We know how this turns out but how do you place the reader in the situation that the participants at the time are in and they really didn’t know?” On writing historical fiction and keeping it exciting.
The true story of women’s suffrage is not taught in history classes.
“Largest single enfranchisement in US History—half of the whole population is enfranchised—it should be part of how our democracy has evolved. And yet it has all been ignored.” On the women’s suffrage not being properly taught in history classes.
“I had no idea that the women’s suffrage movement was this complicated, this important, or this relevant to our politics today.” On her research into the women’s suffrage movement and its characters.
We have an idea and have heard of Seneca Falls. And then we have an idea in our mind that there were picket signs somewhere. And then we have suffrage. What went on in the 75 years between? We really have no idea.
Women did not have the right to own property, could not control their own wages, could not have custody of their children if they got a divorce, did not have the right to testify in the court of law, could not be on the jury and have a jury of their peers, etc.
“It is really kind of shocking to remember what we did not have.” On the rights women were missing until we got the vote.
At Seneca Falls, the call for the vote is only one of the resolutions. Included: equal pay for equal work. Are we there yet?
They hit all of these things that we are still fighting for today. We have progressed and have achieved many of those goals but certainly not all of them.
There are splits in the movement and that happens in almost every movement. It happened several times throughout the 75 years of the movement.
It’s amazing they were able to organize they way they were without our modern technologies and ways of communication.
People get frustrated—it is not going well, it is not going fast enough. And so some want different tactics or more aggressive tactics.
The papers announced the arrival of three women on the same night: Carrie Catt who was Susan B. Anthony’s successor to lead the suffragists and president of the International Women’s Suffrage Movement; Sue Shelton White who was a representative of Alice Paul to lead the more aggressive National Women’s Party wing for ratification; and Josephine Pearson to lead the anti-suffragist. They lived in the same hotel for a few weeks and it became the framework to tell the story of the last ratification battle.
You feel the personality and struggle of each of them. It can be easy to deify people after they happened and this helped them feel more real.
These women devoted good chunks of their lives in achieving equal rights for women or fighting it and Elaine wanted to make them human. She wanted people to understand them as women, as people, as citizens, and politicians.
It’s important to realize that our heroes and heroines are not saints. They are fallible and they are flawed but they want to do something that is great and they work towards it.” On how great historical figures are still just people.
“Women’s suffrage was not just a political movement. It was a cultural, moral, and societal change which was being debated over many decades. It was what we would call culture wars.” On the importance of the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
“I wanted this to be a story of failure and triumph and challenge and that’s what change and making progress in democracy is all about.” On not wanting to only write a history text.
Many of the women who began the movement that ended in women getting the vote didn’t live to see it happen and many of them that did see it happen weren’t born when it started.
Those women were really able to hold on to this goal for their lifetime and beyond. They were willing to give all.
Today many women and men are rising to a political awareness and political activism that they have not entertained before. And they get frustrated after a year when these women went on for 72 years, without the organizing and communication tools that we have today and without political representation. They did not have a vote to hold over a legislature. They persisted! These are the originals!
"They transform anger (and there’s a lot of anger 'cause they have no political power) and they supplement that anger with political knowledge and education.” On how the women in the suffrage movement became masterful politicians.
They are not just protesters they are politicians. They learned how to master public opinion to push politicians to accept women as full citizens.
It is scary for men because they have to dilute their political power by half and it is also a social change for men.
It is not just in the voting booth, it is going to be a change in society.
“Protest is fine, anger is animating, but you’ve got to translate that into political leverage.” On working for change.
Anti-suffragists become pretty sophisticated politicians themselves. Learning about the anti-suffragists was the most eye-opening for Elaine.
“Had no idea that there was such strong backlash to the suffrage movement within the ranks of women.” On learning about the anti-suffrage movement.
For women opposing to give their own sisters the vote seemed counter-intuitive.
Religious aspect: the whole idea that giving full power to women is against God’s plan. Anti-suffragists also said the suffragists were promising too much.
Knowing where the social, the religious, and the political intertwine between these women was interesting. The racial aspect was the hardest.
The suffragists acquiesced to the not letting black women get the vote. Sometimes they did desperate things to get the vote.
You do not have to sacrifice suspense and character just to present facts.
This Episode Sponsored by The NWBA forthcoming book, Women in the Literary Landscape