The best books about the amazing fight for women’s voting rights

The Books I Picked & Why

Alice Paul: Claiming Power

By J.D. Zahniser, Amelia Fry

Alice Paul: Claiming Power

Why this book?

Alice Paul deserves more recognition as a hero of the American suffrage movement. If she were a man there would be statues of her all over the place, and buildings and streets named after her, too. 

I like this book because it examines Paul’s early influences including her Quaker upbringing and her extensive graduate education. It also provides much more detail about her work with the militant suffragettes in England, where she got her start in the movement and developed the more confrontational style that blew up the more staid, incremental approach of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Exhaustively researched but super readable, this book really gives you a sense of Paul as a person as well as a suffrage leader.


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Sisters in Spirit

By Sally Roesch Wagner, John Fadden

Sisters in Spirit

Why this book?

This provocative book examines the role and status of women in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy and how 19th-century white feminists used them as role models in beginning their own fight for rights, including suffrage. It’s a quick read and kind of a life-changing one, really, especially if (like me) you’re completely ignorant of Native history and its relation to US history.  

Among other things, Haudenosaunee women had the right to choose and advise tribal leaders, and had far more control over their persons and their children than Euro-American women did. Wagner argues that close relationships with the Haudenosaunee influenced people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage leading up to the famous Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.


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The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote

By Elaine Weiss

The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote

Why this book?

One indicator of a great book is when, even though you know how the story ends, you still can’t put it down. In The Woman’s Hour Weiss takes us through the final days and weeks that led up to Tennessee becoming the 36th (and final) state to ratify the 19th Amendment. It’s a page-turner. 

Weiss takes us behind the scenes to show how endemic misogyny and racism combined to (almost!) tank ratification in Tennessee. Among other strategies, suffrage opponents dispensed alcohol freely to legislators (all men) to buy their votes. The whole suffrage movement came down to this titanic struggle in one state, which was won by one vote. You will be shocked by the lengths to which opponents were willing to go to block women’s independence.


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African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920

By Rosalyn Terborg-Penn

African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920

Why this book?

Until relatively recently the American suffrage movement was told only from the White perspective; Black women’s contributions were minimized -  when they received any mention at all. Terborg-Penn’s groundbreaking work challenged that viewpoint through her extensive original research that revealed the stories of Black women activists who worked for suffrage within their own clubs when they were discouraged from joining the mainstream white organizations. 

This book is a bit dry and academic but is well worth a read because it brings to light amazing women such as Mary Church Terrell or Frances Ellen Watkins Harper who fought both racism and sexism in their efforts to win voting rights for all American women.


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Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement

By Robert P. J. Cooney Jr.

Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement

Why this book?

When I began researching suffrage history I was captivated by the images I found, including illustrations the suffragists created. Yet most books written about the suffrage movement are nonfiction narratives, with only a handful of images. The suffragists were brilliant at using images to skewer the anti-suffragists’ ridiculous statements about how women voting would ruin families and society.

A graphic designer by trade, Cooney upended that model by gathering together a vast array of photographs, cartoons, and other images depicting both pro-and anti-suffrage sentiment. It’s a great gift to us, and to future generations, to have all of these images gathered together in one book. I love being able to match the names to the photos of these amazing women.


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