‘This Is Not a Boring History of Nagging Spinsters’

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Cassidy: Yes, though I also think the assumption that all the women in the movement were lesbians is an annoying stereotype. It assumes that women had men to take care of all of their needs and why should they want the vote, too?

Wagner: As a lesbian, I want to out every damn one of ’em! What I find helpful is thinking about Adrienne Rich’s “lesbian continuum.” We tend to see the male sexualization of relationships as the model, and that’s not the way that lesbian relationships necessarily develop. Often, the emotional may have more importance. So then you look at, well, were these women doing it in bed? Well, does that even matter? What matters is that many of these women had lifelong emotional relationships that sustained them in their movement work.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson, a suffrage field organizer and the first Black woman to serve on Delaware’s Republican Committee, had several women lovers. Carrie Chapman Catt, a one-time president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and Mary Garrett Hay were an item; so were Dr. M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr College, and Mary E. Garrett, who were major suffrage funders. There were dozens of these “Boston marriages” of economically privileged lesbian power couples in the movement.

Adele, your grandmother, the suffragist Adella Hunt Logan, was once denied the opportunity to speak about the plight of Black women at a conference honoring Susan B. Anthony — because Anthony feared her presence might offend some white politicians. How should we think about the flawed, complicated — and sometimes flatly racist — figures like Anthony who were also critical parts of a movement?

Alexander: One of the things that you see in many movements is that there is sort of a simplistic assumption that we must avoid, which is that progress moves forward in straight lines. And boy, does it ever not go in straight lines. It twists back, it doubles over itself. And it crosses many categories, such as economics, gender and race. That’s something that we may forget, and perhaps it goes against Dr. Martin Luther King’s precept that the arc of justice always bends forward.

Wagner: I think as a culture, we are really grappling with what I call the “both, and” of our historic figures. How do we both hold accountability and celebrate? The suffragists both did this passionate, incredibly important creation of democracy — which we didn’t have before — and they also need to be held accountable for furthering racist laws. How many African-American men’s lives would have been saved if they worked with Ida B. Wells-Barnett against lynching? What if they had worked against voter suppression laws, would people of color have had to wait until 1965 — and for some groups longer — to have a political voice? Where would we be today if our country had enjoyed the leadership and political voices of women of color for the last 100 years?

So much of this history feels so utterly relevant. How do you see the parallels of what these women were fighting for and what is happening today?

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