On the Syllabus: The Rise of American Civilization

In my class on archives and collective memory this semester, our final project is a group presentation of one particular case study in how an event or person or activity survives in collective memories over time. My small group chose to focus on female suffrage and the passage of the 19th Amendment. For my portion of the presentation, I am looking at how the American suffragists situated themselves in the context of American history, and subsequently how they moved to consolidate the public memory of suffrage activism in the 1920s and early 1930s.

One of the examples I've looked at is the 1927 second volume of history of America, The Rise of American Civilization: The Industrial Era, written by the prolific husband and wife team Charles and Mary Ritter Beard. The Beards' account of American history was a linear, progressive narrative (as the title suggests); it foregrounded the economic and political contributions of everyday people in contrast to histories that focused on political and social elites. Mary Beard had, herself, been active in the suffrage movement, although she later criticized mid-twentieth-century feminists for focusing too heavily on women's oppression at the expense of female contributions to "civilization" over the long duree. In The Rise of American Civilization they had the following to say about the push for enfranchisement.

Amid the turbulence connected with this reconstruction in political machinery, woman suffrage was once more brought out of the parlor and the academy, reviving an agitation which, after giving great umbrage to the males of the fuming forties, had died down during the Civil War . . . With a relevancy that could hardly be denied the feminists now asked why the doctrine [of universal suffrage] did not apply to women, only to receive a curt answer from the politicians that sent them flying to the platform to make an appeal to the reasoning of the public at large (562).

This is followed by a description of the state-by-state campaign, the winning of the vote in Western states, and the political tactics of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman's Party (go see Iron Jawed Angels). The three-page section ends on the following triumphal note:

In September, 1918, with a congressional election at hand, [President Wilson] went before a joint session of the Senate and the House in person to urge the passage of the national suffrage amendment, yellow with age, as a measure "vital to the winning of the [First World] war." By June of the following year, the requisite two-thirds vote was assembled and the resolution was sent to the states for ratification. After three-fourths of the commonwealths had approved it, the Nineteenth Amendment was proclaimed in the summer of 1920 a part of the law of the land. The fruit of a hundred years of agitation and social development had finally been garnered.

For the Beards, female suffrage was a naturally-evolving extension of "social development," a process that extended an ever-increasing body of rights and privileges to Americans. Their worldview seems flawed today, when we harbor deep skepticism about the progressive, linear nature of history and change over time, but I find it noteworthy that they chose to include female suffrage within that picture of social development, however antiquated it may be. I also think it is worth highlighting the Beards' sense that the battle was won: "the fruit of a hundred years" was now ripe to be plucked by women who chose to exercise their elective franchise. There were activists at the time who challenged this narrow, single-issue concept of turn-of-the-twentieth-century feminist activism -- the decision to turn the Nineteenth Amendment into a definitive end point was a deliberate one on the part of Charles and Mary Beard (and it fit well with Mary Beard's very individualistic notions of women's power and oppression).

It's also worth pointing out that there are people today who would agree with the Beards that the right to vote wiped sexism away once and for all, sounding the death knell of feminism (those of use who've come after are, as folks so often feel free to inform us, just deluded in our belief that the need for feminist activism remains alive today, nearly a century later). Similarly, there are folks who persist in insinuating (if not outright arguing) that the world might be a better place if women still remained disenfranchised. The suffrage movement might well be the most iconic image of the modern feminist movement, but the ubiquity of its public historical memorializing has hardly brought us to consensus as to its meaning.

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