The best new biographies of American suffragists

Who am I?

I’m Allison Lange, and I’m a historian who writes, gives talks, teaches, and curates exhibitions. For the 19th Amendment centennial, I served as Historian for the United States Congress’s Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. I am also creating the first filmed series on American women’s history for Wondrium (formerly The Great Courses). My first book, Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement focuses on the ways that women’s voting rights activists and their opponents used images to define gender and power. My next book situates current iconic pictures within the context of historical ones to demonstrate that today’s visual debates about gender and politics are shaped by those of the past.

I wrote...

Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women's Suffrage Movement

By Allison Lange,

Book cover of Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women's Suffrage Movement

What is my book about?

For as long as women have battled for equitable political representation in America, those battles have been defined by images—whether illustrations, engravings, photographs, or colorful chromolithograph posters. Some of these pictures have been flattering, many have been condescending, and others downright incendiary. They have drawn upon prevailing cultural ideas of women’s perceived roles and abilities and often have been circulated with pointedly political objectives.

Picturing Political Power offers perhaps the most comprehensive analysis yet of the connection between images, gender, and power. This book demonstrates the centrality of visual politics to American women’s campaigns throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, revealing the power of images to change history.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener

Why did I love this book?

Helen Hamilton Gardener secured crucial support from leading politicians in Washington, DC for the 19th Amendment’s ratification. Despite her significance, few know the story of her exciting and controversial life. Fortunately, Kimberly Hamlin tells Gardener’s dramatic story in her book Free Thinker. Born Alice Chenoweth in 1853, she had to leave her job as a teacher in Ohio after an affair with a married school commissioner in 1876. She adopted the name Helen Hamilton Gardener and a range of modern ideas: women’s rights, opposition to the sexual double standard, and freethought. Gardener eventually became the highest-ranking female official in the federal government by the time of her death in 1925. Free Thinker provides a fascinating glimpse into the behind-the-scenes politics that led to the 19th Amendment’s ratification.

By Kimberly A. Hamlin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Free Thinker as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Ohio newspapers published the story of Alice Chenoweth's affair with a married man, she changed her name to Helen Hamilton Gardener, moved to New York, and devoted her life to championing women's rights and decrying the sexual double standard. She published seven books and countless essays, hobnobbed with the most interesting thinkers of her era, and was celebrated for her audacious ideas and keen wit. Opposed to piety, temperance, and conventional thinking, Gardener eventually settled in Washington, D.C., where her tireless work proved, according to her colleague Maud Wood Park, "the most potent factor" in the passage of the…

Book cover of Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement

Why did I love this book?

Too often textbooks and documentaries recount the stories of white women who fought for the vote, but Cathleen Cahill’s Recasting the Vote spotlights six women of color who led the movement. Yes, I know, Cahill’s book isn’t a traditional biography of one figure, but I promise this collective biography offers a thought-provoking look at their remarkable lives. The book highlights three Native American women who fought for gender equality and for Native American rights: Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Ša), and Laura Cornelius Kellogg. Black activist Carrie Williams Clifford, Chinese-American suffragist and scholar Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, and Adelina Nina Luna Otero-Warren (of Spanish descent) are featured alongside them. Recasting the Vote tells a fresh story of the suffrage movement that you don’t want to miss.

By Cathleen D. Cahill,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Recasting the Vote as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

We think we know the story of women's suffrage in the United States: women met at Seneca Falls, marched in Washington, D.C., and demanded the vote until they won it with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. But the fight for women's voting rights extended far beyond these familiar scenes. From social clubs in New York's Chinatown to conferences for Native American rights, and in African American newspapers and pamphlets demanding equality for Spanish-speaking New Mexicans, a diverse cadre of extraordinary women struggled to build a movement that would truly include all women, regardless of race or national origin. In…

Book cover of Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell

Why did I love this book?

Unceasing Militant is the first-ever biography of Mary Church Terrell, a prominent activist who fought for gender and racial equality. She lived a long, noteworthy life. Terrell was born enslaved in 1863 and died in 1954 after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregated schools. She was among the first Black American women to complete a BA and an MA, and she became the first president of the National Association of Colored women in 1896. Terrell was a popular speaker, and--just like some of us--she also loved to wear fashionable hats and clothes. Terrell picketed the White House with suffragists in 1917 and picketed against segregation even when she was in her 80s! Alison Parker captures her fascinating life in this essential new biography.

By Alison M. Parker,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Unceasing Militant as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Born into slavery during the Civil War, Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) would become one of the most prominent activists of her time, with a career bridging the late nineteenth century to the civil rights movement of the 1950s. The first president of the National Association of Colored Women and a founding member of the NAACP, Terrell collaborated closely with the likes of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Unceasing Militant is the first full-length biography of Terrell, bringing her vibrant voice and personality to life. Though most accounts of Terrell focus almost exclusively on her…

Book cover of Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women's Activism in Modern America

Why did I love this book?

You might be surprised to learn that some prominent suffrage leaders had intimate relationships with women, including Susan B. Anthony and Jane Addams. However, some of these women destroyed their papers to make it difficult for historians to learn about their personal lives (ahem, Anthony and Addams). Scholars are in the process of recovering these stories as much as possible, and Anya Jabour’s Sophonsiba Breckenridge gives us an amazing glimpse into one woman’s experiences. Born in 1868, Breckinridge became one of the first American women to earn a PhD in Political Science. She was a prominent social worker, peace activist, and women’s rights activist until she died in 1948. Breckinridge navigated the spotlight and same-sex relationships, and Jabour tells us how she did it.

By Anya Jabour,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sophonisba Breckinridge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sophonisba Breckinridge's remarkable career stretched from the Civil War to the Cold War. She took part in virtually every reform campaign of the Progressive and New Deal eras and became a nationally and internationally renowned figure. Her work informed women's activism for decades and continues to shape progressive politics today. Anya Jabour's biography rediscovers this groundbreaking American figure. After earning advanced degrees in politics, economics, and law, Breckinridge established the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, which became a feminist think tank that promoted public welfare policy and propelled women into leadership positions. In 1935, Breckinridge's unremitting efforts…

Book cover of Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells

Why did I love this book?

You’ve probably heard of icon Ida B. Wells, but how much do you really know about her life? Wells actually knew Mary Church Terrell, and Terrell’s father even provided Wells with early financial support. Wells was a journalist who led the fight against the lynching of Black people. She left the South and moved to Chicago after white supremacists destroyed her newspaper office. In 1913, she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club to advance the political interests of local Black women and marched in the first national suffrage parade in Washington, DC. In the beautifully illustrated Ida B. The Queen, Wells’s great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, tells Wells’s life story. Duster details Wells’s place in current popular culture and the legacy of her social justice activism that still inspires us today.

By Michelle Duster,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ida B. the Queen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Journalist. Suffragist. Antilynching crusader. In 1862, Ida B. Wells was born enslaved in Holly Springs, Mississippi. In 2020, she won a Pulitzer Prize.

Ida B. Wells committed herself to the needs of those who did not have power. In the eyes of the FBI, this made her a "dangerous negro agitator." In the annals of history, it makes her an icon.

Ida B. the Queen tells the awe-inspiring story of an pioneering woman who was often overlooked and underestimated-a woman who refused to exit a train car meant for white passengers; a woman brought to light the horrors of lynching…

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