Happy Women’s History Month! This month our Reading into History Family Book Club is exploring the last seven years of the 72-year struggle for national women’s suffrage through Ann Bausum’s book, With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman’s’ Right to Vote. Through this book, we’ll learn more about the daring and sometimes dangerous strategies suffragists employed in order to secure the vote.
On March 11, Ann joins us via Skype to discuss her book. Afterwards, we’ll visit the Center for Women’s History for the first time as a book club to explore Hotbed. There we’ll learn more about the suffrage movement right here in New York City.
We interviewed Ann Bausum to start thinking about women’s suffrage. As you read this interview think of the questions you’d like to ask her at our meeting on March 11!
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: Your book starts with an explanation of the incredible connection you have to the suffragist Alice Paul, whom you met when you were 13 years old! How were you introduced to Paul?
Ann Bausum: My dad, who is a historian, introduced me to Alice Paul during a summer when he was lodging at the National Woman’s Party headquarters in Washington, D.C. He lived there while he conducted research at the nearby Folger Shakespeare Library. My mother and I visited him several times, and it was on one of those occasions that he introduced both of us to Miss Paul, who made her home there. We met her in the walled garden of the headquarters in a visit that I describe at the beginning of my book. Afterwards Miss Paul and I would occasionally pass in the halls of the historic building. In my memory, at one point she stood and spoke to me from beneath the famous suffrage banner that hung in the main staircase (almost exactly like the
photo on page 8!)
DCHM: If you could meet one other woman from the suffrage movement who would it be? Why?
Ann Bausum: That’s tough! I think I might choose Lucy Burns. She is a bit of a historical mystery—we just don’t know her very well. It would be great to learn more straight from the source!
DCHM: The title With Courage and Cloth references the two tools that suffragists had to battle for the vote. How did clothing choices unify and empower suffragists?
Ann Bausum: Women made clothing choices during their fight for the vote that helped to build unity and strength. You might not previously know someone, but if she, too, was dressed in suffrage white, you knew you’d found an ally and friend. People dress in solidarity to play sports, support their schools, and go to war. Doing so creates instant kinship and knits a group together with an added sense of strength.
DCHM: Do women today who are participating in marches use clothing in comparable way?
Ann Bausum: Well…how about those knitted pink caps with cat ears? Need I say more?!
DCHM: Readers really get the sense of who these women were as individuals through personal letters you weave into the narrative. For example, Alice Paul’s personality shines through a letter she wrote to her mother in 1917: “Dear Mother: I have been sentenced today to seven months imprisonment. Please do not worry. It will be a delightful rest.” How did you conduct your research for this book and uncover these voices?
Ann Bausum: I read scholarly accounts of the history, tracked down memoirs written by eyewitnesses, and visited archives in search of other primary source material. All that digging helped me understand the history and find the details that would help to bring it alive for a new generation. You’ll find detailed notes about my research methods in the back of the book (pages 102-105). I found the quote you mention in Iron Jawed Angels, a book that evolved from the indispensable doctoral dissertation of Linda Ford. It is dense reading, but she packed it with fascinating details.
DCHM: As you demonstrate throughout the book, suffragists were extremely creative in their organizing for the vote. What was the most elaborate tactic that you came across your research?
Ann Bausum: Maybe it’s not the most elaborate, but I can think of two instances where women used ordinary articles of dress to infiltrate the male power structure of their eras. In the 19th century, women smuggled leaflets into the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia by hiding them in their handbags. At an opportune moment, they stormed the stage, tossing copies of their latest declaration for the rights of women as they marched down the aisles. No women had been scheduled to speak at the event, but they nonetheless made their voices heard. Decades later, women hid a banner under a bulky garment, smuggled it into a congressional visitor gallery, and unfurled it during one of the votes on the suffrage amendment. Arrests followed, as I recall.
DCHM: You assert that the suffrage story has been simplified and that the more radical aspects of the suffrage movement have been played down by historians. What do you think the most important thing young people, who will be able to vote in 2020 or 2024, should know about voting history in the United States?
Ann Bausum: Never take it for granted and never miss an opportunity to vote. Whenever we vote, we honor those who fought so hard to secure the franchise for the generations that have followed. Having won the right, we’ve inherited a legacy of responsibility to remain vigilant and assure that no efforts succeed in undermining it.
Written by Caitlin O’Keefe