Book Review

The Political Uses of Women’s History

DSC_5058Lilian Calles Barger, Ph.D. (University of Texas at Dallas), is an independent scholar working in Taos, NM and serves on the book review committee of the Society. Her current research focuses on 19th and 20th century social, religious, and feminist thought. She is currently working on a book manuscript entitled The World Come of Age: Religion, Intellectuals and the Challenge of Human Liberation.

Lisa Tetrault, The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848–1898, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014. 279 pages.

In The Myth of Seneca Falls, a rich object lesson that challenges suffrage memory, Lisa Tetrault poses a corrective to the narrative of Seneca Falls as the origin of women’s rights. Tetrault argues that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony promoted suffrage as the singular goal of a fractured movement and created the founding myth of Seneca Falls. Examining the period of 1848 to 1898, Tetrault brings attention to conflicts in a narrative that often jumps from 1848 to the final triumph—a woman’s right to vote—in 1920. She examines the creation of the myth, the lessons it provided, and the ways in which it transformed the women’s movement. Myths, she argues, “work to legitimate and unify messy contingencies of political struggle” (4) and call on history for support. Myths are not false; rather they serve as shorthand for larger stories. They also neatly obscure conflict and contingency. While scholars have written alternative histories, Tetrault sees Seneca Falls as having undue influence; she seeks to decenter the narrative by illuminating its contested nature.lisa_tetrault_200x300

In this narrative of the political uses of history, Tetrault draws extensively from primary and secondary sources, weaving familiar threads into an insightful retelling and, in so doing, refocuses our historical vision. Tetrault’s clear and lively prose draws from the vast historiography of women’s suffrage, as well as from studies of collective memory. She demonstrates how, within the post–Civil War contest over how to remember the war, Stanton and Anthony viewed the struggle for women’s rights as “the greatest movement for humanity ever inaugurated…a sacred cause” (42). In the shadow of the 14th and 15th amendments, Stanton and Anthony sought to place the story of the women’s rights within the consolidating national memory.

The movement emerged from the war conflicted over the meaning of women’s rights, political strategy, leadership, and regional initiatives. Beginning with the American Equal Rights Association in 1867, Tetrault surveys the conflicts over the definition of rights that produced a proliferation of women’s-rights groups. The National Women’s Studies Association, led by Stanton and Anthony, made (white, educated) suffrage at the federal level its singular goal. The right to vote was seen as the path to liberation. The American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Lucy Stone, followed a state strategy, without challenging black male suffrage. The central problem was the contested nature of what constituted women’s rights. Many women did not express faith in the vote as the redress for all other ills. The women’s movement represented multiple goals, including temperance, to assure a safe home; improved working conditions for labor women; pensions for widows, as advocated by club women; and women’s control of their bodies, as advanced by radicals. Black women sought economic opportunities for themselves and their community. The franchise, as security for all other rights, was not a forgone conclusion. For Stanton and Anthony, the divisions within the movement spawned a great deal of misdirected energy. Additionally, young women entering the movement had no history of what had come before. Only by uniting women under a common cause, the franchise, and providing a shared history could the movement overcome its divisions.

Motivated by the need for a unifying strategy, Anthony and Stanton set out to write the History of Woman Suffrage, documenting the significance of Seneca Falls and the franchise. They called on women to contribute personal stories, letters, newspaper articles, speeches, and legislative reports so they might contribute to their “grand and true history” (115). Anthony collected a massive amount of materials from the far-flung corners of the nation. Understanding that their historical writing represented a form of critical social activism, they forged a unified movement by minimizing conflict and erasing opposing viewpoints. They forwarded the story that “The prolonged slavery of woman is the darkest page in human history” (114). The fight for women’s rights was the antislavery struggle of America. Through the narrative, the authors established suffrage as the goal and themselves as the foreordained leaders. Tetrault observes that Seneca Falls was “becoming a myth at the same time that it was becoming history” (111). Along with their biographies, History was the authoritative story, with Anthony, Seneca Falls, and the movement becoming synonymous. At the end of her life, Anthony, for reasons that can only be speculated upon, burned the massive collection of documents, making History of Woman Suffrage the interpretation and thesource.

The publication of History enraged many who provided personal and state histories, only to find them ruthlessly edited beyond recognition. Temperance advocate Amelia Bloomer complained: “Mrs. Stanton making it read as she would like it to be and not as facts made it … I was disgusted and disheartened … for they will leave in and take out whatever they pleased” (128). The AWSA had been portrayed as “secessionists” and on the wrong side of women’s history, convincing Stone that the creation of memory was key in political struggle. By 1888, the International Council of Women celebrated the fortieth anniversary of Seneca Falls declaring it the first women’s rights convention to guarantee women’s freedom—an untrue yet uncontested narrative. Tetrault convincingly argues that the History’s rendering of Seneca Falls became hegemonic for the movement.

As the movement united, Stanton lost interest in the franchise, seeing that social and religious bonds continued to keep women in a subordinated position. While Stanton came to see other foundational forces affecting women’s position in state and society, Anthony narrowed her vision to an absolutist view of the vote as the means for social change. Claiming suffrage as the ultimate goal produced a number of repercussions. Anthony as sole leader gained the support of the conservative Women’s Temperance Union—against the wishes of the organization’s more radical members. The narrowing of the vision marginalized other claims and severely weakened local initiatives.

Seneca Falls, as Tetrault shows, remains an important rallying point. In the 1960s and ’70s, it was resurrected to recruit women who did not otherwise consider themselves activists. It had all the elements of a useful myth: drama, heroic women, and the promise of an ultimate victory. It inspired women’s history month and the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls. Seneca Falls continues to frame stories of the early women’s rights movement both in the academy and in public memory. Its white middle-class sensibilities and its emphasis on the vote elides the multiple theoretical foundations and diverse demands made by women.

The Myth of Seneca Falls serves to warn us of our propensity for creating convenient myths. As participants in the 1970s women’s movement were first in writing the history of the “second wave,” we must ask ourselves: What new myths are shutting out alternatives to liberal feminism? Is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, not initially intended to aid women and possibly of limited use to them, or Roe v. Wade, which produced a great deal of hostility toward feminism, the story to which all other women’s interests are subordinated? This tendency to hang history and the future on particular moments, as Tetrault deftly demonstrates, obscures the subtler issues that shape women’s and men’s lives.

I would like to see a deeper analysis of the complex bundle of ideas that constituted the often-contradictory conception of “women’s rights” and faith in the franchise, which failed to deliver so much of what it promised—an end that Stanton and Anthony were unable to foresee. As Stanton came to understand, the political conception of women’s rights as vested in the franchise alone was insufficient to explain the myriad of culturally entrenched obstacles women faced. Tetrault’s synthetic retelling of how Seneca Falls became a powerful myth is a reminder of the political uses and consequences of writing history.

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks for the review, Lilian. I couldn’t help but think about the fact that the ways in which activists shape history and narrative for their own purposes is a key part of understanding social movements in American history. I have to say after reading this review I really want to read the book, primarily to consider how these lessons apply to the the ways in which leaders of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements shaped and molded narratives for their audiences in the 1960s and 1970s.

  2. Robert, It usually is the participants in social movements who write the first draft of history. It’s the historians job to question that narrative and figure out what was politically at play in how its told. Tetrault really brings Stanton and Anthony down to mortal levels with a powerful affect.

  3. This is the first I’ve heard of Anthony’s and Stanton’s *History of Woman Suffrage*. Amazing. I love the story of its contested reception—and of Anthony burning the book’s primary source documents. But I love metahistories.

    How does Tetrault deal with women of color and their view of Seneca Falls, as myth or otherwise? Did any black men (e.g. Du Bois) or women review Anthony’s and Stanton’s *History*? – TL

  4. Very interesting review! Does the book touch on Reconstruction and the tensions between white feminist activists and supporters of Reconstruction, both black and white? The moment when political figures that in theory supported women’s rights, such as Weldon Phillips and Charles Sumner, decide to focus–strategically, Phillips said–on the legitimization of black freedom is quite significant, and one finds echoes of this moment in the conflict between black and white feminists in the sixties and seventies over what agenda they needed to pushed forward first: race or gender.

  5. Tim and Kahlil, Tetrault does not go into black women’s scholarship response to Seneca Falls, but she does spend significant amount of time on the debate over the black male vote during Reconstruction and how black women were sidelined. She shows how Anthony’s and Stanton’s position actually helped the white cause in the South by arguing against the black and “ignorant” vote. The problem of race vs gender has remained a significant problem for the 20th century movement. It would be interesting to look at how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was used differently by black and white women. This again shows up in early affirmative action cases.

  6. Burning the archives was really over the top. We don’t if it was malicious or just careless. We are talking about a massive amount of documents taking her over a month to burn with the help of an assistant. Make you wonder how the history would change with those documents. Sigh.

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