From the early 1850s, when an organized national women’s rights movement emerged, to 1920, when the 19th Amendment enfranchising women was ratified, U.S. women writers from a variety of racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds published hundreds of short stories, novels, poems, plays, essays and conversion narratives in support of woman suffrage. In an essay entitled “The Truth of Fiction, and Its Charms”, published in the first issue of the very first American journal devoted to women’s rights, The Una (1853), for example, an anonymous editor argued that popular fiction was a valuable rhetorical form for the emergent movement. “[Fiction] brings the truth of nature—the probable, the possible and the ideal—in their broadest range and utmost capabilities into the service of a favorite principle, and demonstrates its force and beauty, and practicability, in circumstantial details, which like a panorama, presents an image so like an experience that we realize it for all the purposes of knowledge, hope and resolution” (qtd. Petty 4). In 1892, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the President of the newly formed National American Woman Suffrage Association, reiterated this appreciation of literature’s ability to move people to embrace a “favorite principle: “I have long waited … for some woman to arise to do for her sex what Mrs. Stowe did for the black race in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ a book that did more to rouse the national conscience than all the glowing appeals and constitutional arguments that agitated our people during half a century” (Stanton, Pray, Sir, vi-vii). Many suffrage supporters responded to Stanton’s call, particularly in the final two decades of the campaign.
An astonishing number of canonical and popular US writers voiced their support of woman suffrage through literary works. “Fanny Fern”, for example, wrote pro-suffrage essays such as “Independence” and “Shall Women Vote?”. Harriet Beecher Stowe published serialized fiction such as My Wife and I and fictional dialogues such as the Chimney Corner that expressed moderate support for suffrage. Louisa May Alcott and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps authored suffrage literature for children. Twentieth-century authors Gertrude Atherton, Mary Johnston, Zona Gale, Edna Ferber, and Mary Austin all wrote novels that describe aspects of American suffrage in moving detail. Early twentieth-century poets–Frances Harper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Marianne Moore, and Edna St. Vincent Millay to name just a few–wrote poetry in support of suffrage or in praise of suffragist leaders. Modernist. Even avant-gardist Gertrude Stein considered the suffrage theme when she wrote an opera libretto memorializing Susan B. Anthony, The Mother of Us All twenty-five years after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. In addition to these more canonical figures, many popular writers–sensation novelist Lillie Devereux Blake, satirical poet Alice Duer Miller, and Western writer Abigail Scott Duniway–also made significant contributions to the suffrage literary tradition.
Examples from this extensive archive of literary works about suffrage appear in my Treacherous Texts: US Suffrage Literature 1846-1946 , an anthology designed to showcase creative interventions in the suffrage campaign, which are often overshadowed by oratory and other discursive forms. These creative works—fiction, poetry, drama, and autobiography as well as cartoons, banner slogans and song lyrics–should remind us of the importance of literature to political battles both in the past and today.
Resources and Further Reading
Alcott, Louisa May. “Cupid and Chow Chow,” in Aunt Jo’s Scrap Bag, vol. 3. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1880. 5–40.
Atherton, Gertude. Julia France and Her Times. New York: Macmillan, 1912.
Blake, Lillie D. Fettered for Life or Lord and Master. New York: Sheldon & Co., 1874.
—-. “A Divided Republic: An Allegory of the Future,” in A Daring Experiment and Other Stories. New York: Lovell, Coryell, 1892: 346–60.
Duniway,Abigail Scott. Edna and John . Reprint, Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2000.
Ferber, Edna. Fanny Herself. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1917.
Fern, Fanny. Ruth Hall and Other Writings. Ed. Joyce Warren. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986.
Fordham, Mary Weston “Atlanta Exposition Ode.” In She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. Edited by Janet Gray. Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1997. 270–271.
Gale, Zona. “Friday.” Century Magazine 88, no. 4 (August 1914): 521–24.
—–. Friendship Village. New York: Macmillan, 1908.
—–. Mothers to Men. New York: Macmillan, 1911.
—–. Peace in Friendship Village. New York: Macmillan, 1919.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. In This Our World. . New York: Arno Press, 1974.
Harper, Frances W. “The Deliverance.” In Sketches of Southern Life. Philadelphia: Ferguson Bros. & Co., 1893. 6–16.
—–. “Aunt Chloe’s Politics,” In Sketches of Southern Life (1871), in A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader, ed. Frances Smith Foster .New York: Feminist Press, 1990. 204–205.
Johnston, Mary. Hagar. . Richmond: University Press of Virginia, 1994.
Jonas, Rosalie. “Brother Baptis”, The Crisis. September 1912: 247.
Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “Upon this marble bust that is not I,” in The Buck in the Snow (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928), 66.
Miller, Alice Duer. Are Women People? A Book of Rhymes for Suffrage Times. New York: George H. Doran and Co., 1915.
Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. “Trotty’s Lecture Bureau (Not a Trotty Story, but a Trotty Scrap. Told for Trotty’s Friends.),” St. Nicholas Magazine 4, no. 7 (May 1877): 454–55.
Stein, Gertrude. The Mother of Us All. in Last Operas and Plays, ed. Carl Van Vechten (1949; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. My Wife and I: or Henry Henderson’s History. 1871.
—–. Uncle Tom’s Cabin . New York: Penguin, 1986.
“The Truth of Fiction, and Its Charms”, The Una vol. 1 no. 1. 1853.
Zink-Sawyer, Beverly Ann. From Preachers to Suffragists: Woman’s Rights and Religious Conviction in The Lives of Three Nineteenth-century Clergywomen. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989.