The best books about suffrage movements

13 authors have picked their favorite books about suffrage movements and why they recommend each book.

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Suffrage

By Ellen Carol DuBois,

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

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.


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.

Recasting the Vote

By Cathleen D. Cahill,

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

Recasting the Vote retells the familiar story of the movement for women’s suffrage with a new cast of characters and an expanded set of goals. Focusing on Indigenous, African American, Hispanic, and Asian American activists, Cathleen Cahill places the fight for women’s voting rights within the context of BIPOC communities’ struggles for self-determination. For these women, the battle for women’s suffrage was connected to protests against lynching and segregation and demands for tribal self-government and freedom of religion, among other issues. By highlighting the work of Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa), Laura Cornelius Kellogg, Carrie Williams Clifford, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, and Adelina Nina Luna Otero-Warren, Recasting the Vote demonstrates that the fight for the Nineteenth Amendment was neither the beginning nor the end of women of color’s struggle for equal citizenship.


Who am I?

I have always been drawn to biographies. Individual stories make the past personal. Biographies also transcend the usual boundaries of time and topic, illuminating multiple issues across an individual’s entire life course. I’m especially interested in feminist biography—not just biographies of feminists, but biographies that combine the personal and the political, showing how individuals’ personal experiences and intimate relationships shaped their professional choices and political careers. I also enjoy group biographies, especially when they weave multiple stories together to illuminate many facets of shared themes. Ideally, a great biography will introduce a reader to an interesting individual (or group of people) whose story illuminates important themes in their lifetime.


I wrote...

Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women's Activism in Modern America

By Anya Jabour,

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

What is my 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. 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 to provide government aid to the dispossessed culminated in her appointment as an advisor on programs for the new Social Security Act. A longtime activist in international movements for peace and justice, Breckinridge also influenced the formation of the United Nations and advanced the idea that "women’s rights are human rights." Her lifelong commitment to social justice created a lasting legacy for generations of progressive activists.

Other Powers

By Barbara Goldsmith,

Book cover of Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and The Scandalous Victoria Woodhull

Goldsmith vividly recreates the life and times of Woodhull, a shrewd manipulator who traded on her physical beauty and her intellect to run a successful brokerage firm after the Civil War. Woodhull, along with her sister Tennessee Claflin, used some of her profits to publish a women’s rights newspaper that supported suffrage and other women’s rights causes. Stanton and Anthony, initially intrigued by her keen business sense and her suffrage commitment, soon shunned her for her radical views on sexuality. Woodhull pushed all sorts of boundaries designed to contain women, even political ones--she ran for president in 1872.

Who am I?

My expertise: I specialize in writing about scrappy women in American history. I started with a trilogy of nonfiction history books about American women in the Philippine Islands who lived through the Japanese occupation during World War II. Then I found a biographical subject that combined the fascinating topics of war and suffrage, so I wrote Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War: One Woman’s Journey to the Medal of Honor and the Fight for Women’s Rights. The next woman who grabbed my attention was a big name in Hollywood in the 20th century. Queen of the West: The Life and Times of Dale Evans is due out in 2022. 


I wrote...

Dr. Mary Walker's Civil War: One Woman's Journey to the Medal of Honor and the Fight for Women's Rights

By Theresa Kaminski,

Book cover of Dr. Mary Walker's Civil War: One Woman's Journey to the Medal of Honor and the Fight for Women's Rights

What is my book about?

In late 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded Dr. Mary Walker the Medal of Honor in recognition of the incomparable medical service she rendered to the United States Army during the Civil War. To date, she remains the only woman so honored. After the war, Walker joined the more well-known Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in their efforts to secure support for women’s suffrage. But due to conflicts over ideology and tactics, the doctor soon found herself unwelcome in the movement. Walker quickly became a divisive figure, and her contributions almost disappeared to history.

Equality's Call

By Deborah Diesen, Magdalena Mora (illustrator),

Book cover of Equality's Call: The Story of Voting Rights in America

The United States of America has a proud but checkered tradition of freedom. This book gives kids nuance about the past while celebrating expanding access to freedom. The text rhymes and is satisfyingly rhythmic. A refrain carries us through the sweep of history: “We heard ever louder/ Equality’s call:/ A right isn’t right/ Till it’s granted to all.” The illustrations show the slow accumulation of more and more people gaining access to civil rights, culminating in an image of people of all genders, colors, and abilities celebrating their right to vote. The trim size of this book about equal rights is, like my book, a perfect square: 4 perfectly equal sides physically reminding the reader who holds it of the theme of the book.


Who am I?

I grew up watching my older sister march through the world, pointing out to adults what was wrong with society and how they should change it. She included me in her activism sometimes, like the time she and I leafletted the neighbors, reminding them that they should vote in the next election. I want kids who aren’t lucky enough to grow up with an activist sibling to know that their voices matter. I write books about kids, like Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, who change the world.


I wrote...

All the Way to the Top: How One Girl's Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything

By Annette Bay Pimentel, Nabi Ali (illustrator),

Book cover of All the Way to the Top: How One Girl's Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything

What is my book about?

Jennifer Keelan never thought her wheelchair needed to slow her down, but the way the world around her was built made it hard to do even simple things. Like going to school, or eating lunch in the cafeteria.

So Jennifer started speaking up about injustices she saw. She knew that everyone deserves a voice! When she was eight years old, the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that would make public spaces much more accessible to people with disabilities, was proposed to Congress. And to make sure it passed, Jennifer went to the steps of the Capitol building in Washington DC to convince them. And, without her wheelchair, she climbed. ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP!

Alice Paul

By J.D. Zahniser, Amelia Fry,

Book cover of Alice Paul: Claiming Power

Alice Paul is nearly as obscure as Gandhi is famous, but not because she deserves to be. Paul led the American suffrage movement during its final decade, from 1910 to 1919, when the nineteenth amendment was finally passed. Claiming Power is the best biography out there about the underappreciated Paul.  Zahniser and Fry detail the life of this indefatigable activist, who changed the suffrage movement from an often “ladylike,” deferential campaign to an unapologetically confrontational crusade. My own book emerged from a desire to tell Paul’s story as an example of nonviolent activism at work, because she is rarely understood in this context.  But make no mistake about it, Paul was a nonviolent leader of the first order.   


Who am I?

In the early years of the Trump presidency, I looked for a subject that would inspire young readers, and keep me from falling into despair. I loved researching this topic and finding ways to do justice to the incredible people and the movements at the center of my book. Simply put, it was a joy to become an expert on this important topic. There are so many reasons to be pessimistic about the state of the world, but these stories give me hope that together we can create a better future for everyone.


I wrote...

We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World

By Todd Hasak-Lowy,

Book cover of We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World

What is my book about?

We Are Power brings to light the incredible individuals who have used nonviolent activism to change the world. The book explores questions such as what is nonviolent resistance and how does it work? In an age when armies are stronger than ever before, when guns seem to be everywhere, how can people confront their adversaries without resorting to violence themselves? Through key international movements as well as people such as Gandhi, Alice Paul, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and Václav Havel, this book discusses the components of nonviolent resistance. It answers the question “Why nonviolence?” by showing how nonviolent movements have succeeded again and again in a variety of ways, in all sorts of places, and always in the face of overwhelming odds. The book includes endnotes, a bibliography, and an index.

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

By Rosalyn Terborg-Penn,

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

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.


Who am I?

My great-grandmother was a suffrage leader in Maine from roughly 1914-1920, and is the subject of my first book, Voting Down the Rose: Florence Brooks Whitehouse and Maine’s Fight for Woman Suffrage. Florence helped found and led the Maine branch of the Congressional Union, working closely with the indomitable Alice Paul. In 2015 I retraced the original route of an epic cross-country trip for suffrage; this led to my novel, We Demand: The Suffrage Road Trip. I did extensive research for both books and have become passionate about women’s rights history. I speak frequently on suffrage to students, historical societies, libraries, book clubs, and other groups.


I wrote...

We Demand: The Suffrage Road Trip

By Anne B. Gass,

Book cover of We Demand: The Suffrage Road Trip

What is my book about?

We Demand: The Suffrage Road Trip is based on the true story of an epic cross-country trip that took place in 1915. It was America's first trans-continental car trip for a cause- to demand that Congress pass an amendment to the US Constitution enfranchising women.

The story unfolds through the eyes of Ingeborg Kindstedt and Maria Kindberg, middle-aged, lesbian Swedish immigrants who own the car, do all the driving, and fix what goes wrong. The roads are often bad, and the weather is worse. They lose their way in a trackless Nevada desert and get stuck in the mud in Kansas, amid many other adventures. Will they arrive in DC at the appointed day and time?

Winning the Vote

By Robert P. J. Cooney Jr.,

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

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.


Who am I?

My great-grandmother was a suffrage leader in Maine from roughly 1914-1920, and is the subject of my first book, Voting Down the Rose: Florence Brooks Whitehouse and Maine’s Fight for Woman Suffrage. Florence helped found and led the Maine branch of the Congressional Union, working closely with the indomitable Alice Paul. In 2015 I retraced the original route of an epic cross-country trip for suffrage; this led to my novel, We Demand: The Suffrage Road Trip. I did extensive research for both books and have become passionate about women’s rights history. I speak frequently on suffrage to students, historical societies, libraries, book clubs, and other groups.


I wrote...

We Demand: The Suffrage Road Trip

By Anne B. Gass,

Book cover of We Demand: The Suffrage Road Trip

What is my book about?

We Demand: The Suffrage Road Trip is based on the true story of an epic cross-country trip that took place in 1915. It was America's first trans-continental car trip for a cause- to demand that Congress pass an amendment to the US Constitution enfranchising women.

The story unfolds through the eyes of Ingeborg Kindstedt and Maria Kindberg, middle-aged, lesbian Swedish immigrants who own the car, do all the driving, and fix what goes wrong. The roads are often bad, and the weather is worse. They lose their way in a trackless Nevada desert and get stuck in the mud in Kansas, amid many other adventures. Will they arrive in DC at the appointed day and time?

The Right to Vote

By Alexander Keyssar,

Book cover of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States

At the most basic level, this is a history book that describes the evolution of voting rights in the United States. But it also yields a deeper lesson—that democracy is not a static thing; it is a continually evolving set of practices that each generation of Americans has updated. The book is ultimately encouraging about the potential of American democracy to renew itself and reminds us that democracy is something we choose, not something we are given. This is not a page-turner but for those who think that the struggle over voting rights is a modern development, the layers of detail will help form a more nuanced and richer picture.


Who am I?

I am an economist by training, who has researched and taught classes related to business, governance, and democracy for more than 30 years at the University of Southern California. My work is multidisciplinary, spanning economics, finance, law, and political science, with a grounding in empirical analysis. In addition to two books and numerous scholarly articles, I am a frequent op-ed contributor and media commentator on topics related to democracy. I also direct the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a nonpartisan education organization focused on direct democracy.


I wrote...

Let the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge

By John G. Matsusaka,

Book cover of Let the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge

What is my book about?

Many Americans of both parties feel that democracy is adrift, that government has become unresponsive to the concerns of ordinary people, and that “elites” have too much influence. My book, using an array of historical and empirical evidence, shows that this concern is not imaginary—popular control over government in fact has been declining over time. The book explains how this situation gradually came about over the last century, largely as an unanticipated byproduct of rational efforts to modernize government. There is no simple way to restore popular confidence in government, but the book shows how some pressure can be alleviated by using referendums to decide important policy issues such as abortion, immigration, and schooling.

The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement

By Aileen S. Kraditor,

Book cover of The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement: 1890-1920

This book, published first in 1965 and then revised and reissued, was required reading when I was in graduate school. With this intellectual history of women’s suffrage, Kraditor sparked my interest in how ideas spur and shape political and social movements. Arguments, tactics, and strategies originate in the ideas of participants, and these ideas have consequences for how and what is eventually achieved. My favorite chapter explained the two kinds of arguments suffragists used. The argument from “justice” asserted women’s equal humanity with men, while the argument from “expediency” affirmed the benefits of extending women’s domestic caretaking into politics. 

My takeaway was that movements need multiple arguments to convince different constituencies to join and support their cause. Kraditor refused to whitewash the women’s suffrage movement and recounted how white, middle-class, native-born women also used ethnocentric and racist arguments to claim access to the ballot. 


Who am I?

After growing up in California, earning a PhD in Wisconsin, and having a stint as an academic in Colorado, I now teach United States history in beautiful Aotearoa New Zealand. I write books on 20th century U.S. politics, social movements, and popular culture. Along the way, I have found important political content, interactions, and struggle in unlikely spots, from community organizing to Hollywood gossip. In all my work, I find Americans drawing upon the ideological and material resources available to them—whether radicalism, conservatism, and liberalism, or social movements and popular culture—to construct and contest the meanings of citizenship.  


I wrote...

"Let Us Vote!" Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment

By Jennifer Frost,

Book cover of "Let Us Vote!" Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment

What is my book about?

"Let Us Vote!" tells the story of the multifaceted endeavor to achieve youth voting rights in the United States. Over a thirty-year period starting during World War II, Americans, old and young, Democrat and Republican, in politics and culture, built a movement for the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 1971 was the last time that the United States significantly expanded voting rights, enfranchising tens of millions of young Americans since. 2021 marks the fiftieth anniversary of this historic achievement and comes at a time when voting rights are under threat.

By remembering how and why the 26th Amendment came about and recognizing the citizens and campaigns that led the way, I hope my book can contribute to protecting our democracy today.

Give Us the Ballot

By Ari Berman,

Book cover of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America

Ari Berman picks up the voting rights story in 1965, with the Voting Rights Act’s transformative impact on Black electoral participation and office-holding, especially in the South. Designed to enforce the 15th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act removed barriers to voter registration, like literacy tests, and required states and localities with histories of racial disenfranchisement to seek “preclearance” for changes to their voting and election laws. These and other measures succeeded in greatly expanding American democracy. 

Yet, as Berman documents, opposing forces sought to return to the states the power to restrict access to the ballot, and their own success came with Shelby v. Holder (2013), which ended preclearance. A raft of restrictive regulations immediately rolled out and have intensified today. In this book, since, and joined now by many others, Berman warns that American democracy is at great risk, a warning I deeply feel we need to heed.


Who am I?

After growing up in California, earning a PhD in Wisconsin, and having a stint as an academic in Colorado, I now teach United States history in beautiful Aotearoa New Zealand. I write books on 20th century U.S. politics, social movements, and popular culture. Along the way, I have found important political content, interactions, and struggle in unlikely spots, from community organizing to Hollywood gossip. In all my work, I find Americans drawing upon the ideological and material resources available to them—whether radicalism, conservatism, and liberalism, or social movements and popular culture—to construct and contest the meanings of citizenship.  


I wrote...

"Let Us Vote!" Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment

By Jennifer Frost,

Book cover of "Let Us Vote!" Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment

What is my book about?

"Let Us Vote!" tells the story of the multifaceted endeavor to achieve youth voting rights in the United States. Over a thirty-year period starting during World War II, Americans, old and young, Democrat and Republican, in politics and culture, built a movement for the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 1971 was the last time that the United States significantly expanded voting rights, enfranchising tens of millions of young Americans since. 2021 marks the fiftieth anniversary of this historic achievement and comes at a time when voting rights are under threat.

By remembering how and why the 26th Amendment came about and recognizing the citizens and campaigns that led the way, I hope my book can contribute to protecting our democracy today.

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