The best books on the fight for American women’s suffrage — the movement’s good, bad, and ugly

Nancy C. Unger Author Of Belle La Follette: Progressive Era Reformer
By Nancy C. Unger

Who am I?

History is my passion as well as my profession. I love a good story! Because understanding the past can be a powerful tool to improving the future, I have written dozens of op-eds and give public talks (some of which can be found in the C-SPAN online library as well as on YouTube). Most of my work focuses on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (1877-1920) and includes two award-winning biographies, Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer, and Belle La Follette Progressive Era Reformer. I’m also the co-editor of A Companion to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and author of Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History.


I wrote...

Belle La Follette: Progressive Era Reformer

By Nancy C. Unger,

Book cover of Belle La Follette: Progressive Era Reformer

What is my book about?

As a speaker and a journalist, Belle La Follette (1859-1931) was a remarkable feminist, campaigner for world peace, and a leader in the fight for women’s suffrage.  She was outraged that many of the best-known white leaders in the suffrage movement were willing to throw their African American sisters under the bus in their efforts to gain the vote for themselves. She asserted that “This business of being a woman is, in many ways, like being a member of a despised race,” and that women should therefore fight against all second-class citizenship. She used her clout as the wife of a U.S. Senator to fight for racial justice and women’s equality, including the right to vote for every American.

The books I picked & why

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Suffrage: Women's Long Battle for the Vote

By Ellen Carol DuBois,

Book cover of Suffrage: Women's Long Battle for the Vote

Why this book?

Written to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, this lively, exciting book provides a fresh and comprehensive history of the fight for women’s suffrage. DuBois is a leading scholar who presents her expertise in prose that appeals to scholars and general readers alike. There are lots of books on the long history of women’s suffrage—this is the best.


No Votes for Women: The New York State Anti-Suffrage Movement

By Susan Goodier,

Book cover of No Votes for Women: The New York State Anti-Suffrage Movement

Why this book?

It’s easy to forget that many women, as well as men, actively opposed women’s suffrage. Susan Goodier details the anti-suffrage movement in New York State, but her analysis of its motives, victories, and ultimate defeat reveals much about the philosophies and implications of conservative movements nationwide. This is a fascinating study of the women who joined together in a political movement to keep women out of politics. A highlight is how these women fared after the vote was won.


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

By Kimberly A. Hamlin,

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

Why this book?

This biography of a woman who challenged the sexual double standard is a delightful read in its own right, but Gardener’s underappreciated role in attaining the vote for women is especially fascinating and shows the diversity of individuals, goals, and tactics within the movement. While suffrage campaigners like Alice Paul were picketing the White House and denouncing Woodrow Wilson for his inaction, Gardner had the ear of the President and many key members of Congress, reassuring them that Paul and her feminist compatriots were not representative of the majority of the loyal, patriotic women who sought the vote.  Hamlin does not shy away from the role that racism played in Gardner’s successes and in the suffrage movement overall. 


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

By Cathleen D. Cahill,

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

Why this book?

White suffrage leaders like Alice Paul and Helen Hamilton Gardner found it expedient to focus on gaining the vote for white women. Rather than presenting women of color as passive victims of racism, Cahill reveals many of the unsung leaders of the movement, representing a wide range of women (including Native Americans, Asian Americans, and various immigrant groups as well as African Americans). Their efforts, their gains and their losses, reveal much about the ongoing struggle for civil rights, and provide a different aspect of the limits and strengths of the wide-ranging suffrage movement.


One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story

By Kevin S. Giles,

Book cover of One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story

Why this book?

Jeannette Rankin is so well known for being the first woman elected to the US Congress, and for voting against American entry into both world wars, that her vital role in achieving women’s suffrage goes unappreciated. In this full biography, Giles engagingly recounts her tireless work across the nation as a suffrage campaigner, as well as her introduction, as a member of the House of Representatives, of the Susan B. Anthony amendment that would guarantee women the vote. There are many biographies of Rankin—this one is especially balanced and lively.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in suffrage movements, Women's suffrage, and women?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about suffrage movements, Women's suffrage, and women.

Suffrage Movements Explore 23 books about suffrage movements
Women's Suffrage Explore 14 books about Women's suffrage
Women Explore 315 books about women

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, Winning the Vote, and Vanguard if you like this list.