42 pages 1 hour read

Elaine Weiss

The Woman's Hour

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


The Woman’s Hour (2018) is a nonfiction chronicle of the final battle for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which gave American women the right to vote. The book explores the blood, sweat, and tears required to gain women’s suffrage in this country. Contrary to popular opinion, the process was neither quick nor easy.

The events chronicled in the book take place during July and August of 1920 in Nashville, Tennessee. The author’s uses the third-person to tell parts of the story from the perspectives of the three women most directly involved in the battle over the amendment: Carrie Chapman Catt (head of NAWSA, or the National American Woman Suffrage Association), Sue Shelton White (operative of NWP, or the National Woman’s Party), and Josephine Pearson (leader of the Tennessee Anti movement).

The book follows the major players converging on Nashville in anticipation of the final ratification vote needed to pass the amendment. All the tension related to the struggle for women’s suffrage culminates in a dramatic legislative confrontation in which the enfranchisement of half America’s population ultimately passes by only two votes. The overwrought political struggle in Nashville allows the author to explore themes of the grueling fight for suffrage, the culture wars that impeded its passage, and the thorny problem of defining the extent of democracy in the United States.

Author Elaine F. Wiess also wrote Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army of America in the Great War (2008), which focuses on the years leading up to the final confrontation over a woman’s right to vote. In addition, her journalistic work has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Amblin TV optioned the rights for an adaptation of The Woman’s Hour to be produced by Hillary Clinton and Stephen Spielberg.

NOTE: All page number citations are taken from the Kindle edition of this book (March 2018)

Plot Summary

The book begins with three women traveling separately by rail. Their destination is Nashville, Tennessee. Carrie Chapman Catt leads NAWSA—a suffrage group that employs slow and steady measures to gain the support and cooperation of legislators around the country. Sue Shelton White has been delegated to represent the interests of NWP—a radical group of feminists who use shock tactics to force social change. Josephine Pearson is a traditionalist who leads the Anti faction that opposes ratification of the amendment. All three women make the Hotel Hermitage their campaign headquarters as they wage a war for the hearts and minds of the legislators of Tennessee.

The weeks leading up to the vote in the state assembly are laden with tension. The suffragettes, or Suffs, only need one more state to ratify the amendment and make it the law of the land. If they fail in Tennessee, the amendment could languish for decades to come, and women would remain deprived of the right to vote. Those opposed to the amendment, the Antis, fear the racial repercussions of this change: Opening the vote to women means opening the vote to Black women. The South is deeply resistant to acknowledging the civil rights of Black people, which they have sharply curtailed during the still ongoing Jim Crow backlash to post-Civil War Reconstruction. The region valorizes states’ rights over the dictates of the federal government. Approving women’s suffrage might open the floodgates to other threats to the Southern way of life.

As the Suffs and Antis jockey for power over the legislature, they employ political leverage and propaganda. Big business interests resort to underhanded tactics such as blackmail, seduction, kidnapping, and bribery. In the highly dramatic conclusion to the controversy, the amendment is ratified by a mere two votes, indicating just how hard-won the Suff victory really is. As Carrie Chapman Catt cautions afterward, “Women have suffered agony of soul which you never can comprehend, that you and your daughters might inherit political freedom. That vote has been costly. Prize it!” (324).