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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Ellen Carol DuBois,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Honoring the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment to the Constitution, this "indispensable" book (Ellen Chesler, Ms. magazine) explores the full scope of the movement to win the vote for women through portraits of its bold leaders and devoted activists.

Distinguished historian Ellen Carol DuBois begins in the pre-Civil War years with foremothers Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojurner Truth as she "meticulously and vibrantly chronicles" (Booklist) the links of the woman suffrage movement to the abolition of slavery. After the Civil War, Congress granted freed African American men the right to vote but not white…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Susan Goodier,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked No Votes for Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

No Votes for Women explores the complicated history of the suffrage movement in New York State by delving into the stories of women who opposed the expansion of voting rights to women. Susan Goodier finds that conservative women who fought against suffrage encouraged women to retain their distinctive feminine identities as protectors of their homes and families, a role they felt was threatened by the imposition of masculine political responsibilities. She details the victories and defeats on both sides of the movement from its start in the 1890s to its end in the 1930s, acknowledging the powerful activism of this…

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

Why did I love 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. 

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?

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.

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 One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story

Why did I love 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.

By Kevin S. Giles,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked One Woman Against War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One Woman Against War is a historical biography.Women's rights leader, pacifist, feminist. She was the lonely dissenter, committed to following the dictates of her conscience no matter the consequences. Jeannette Rankin, an early leader for woman suffrage and the first woman elected to Congress, crusaded for peace her entire life. "Killing more people won't help matters," she said.
The Montana native was an American icon of extremes in politics, applauded as a beacon of hope by many people and vilified as a traitor by others. Rankin is widely known as the first woman elected to Congress. Lesser known is that…

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