June 27, 2017
An account of the role men played in pressing the case for women’s voting rights in the early years of the last century.
Kroeger (Journalism/New York Univ.; Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are, 2003, etc.) opens with a 1911 parade along New York’s Fifth Avenue in support of women’s right to vote, with some 5,000 marchers converging on Union Square. Among them were dozens of men who marched under the banner of the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage. “These men were not random supporters,” writes the author, “but representatives of a momentous, yet subtly managed development in the suffrage movement’s seventh decade”—namely, the careful leveraging of men in the professions, as well as the military and clergy, to endorse the cause. Among them, Kroeger enumerates, were Max Eastman, George Foster Peabody, John Dewey, and other stalwarts of progressivism. Yet, as she notes as her narrative broadens into an urgent, interesting history of women’s suffrage generally, those progressives were not always strong allies of women’s rights. Among other things, World War I diverted them from full participation in the movement, and Eastman may have trivialized the cause when he argued before striking male workers, “you dislike women’s voting and we like it, and that [is] all the argument there is between us. What can we do to persuade you?” Though mindful of the dangers of co-optation, the “suffragettes” put the “suffragents” to good work all the same. Among the pleasures of Kroeger’s carefully developed storyline is the view of how important political figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson came around to accepting the idea that women deserved the vote, an evolution helped along by arguments by the suffrage movement’s male allies until the righteousness of the cause could no longer be ignored.
A vigorous, readable revisitation of the events of a century and more ago but with plenty of subtle lessons in the book for modern-day civil rights activists, too.