Yes! I got my first 1-star review of Somebody to Love! And it was the best possible kind of 1-star review too!
How can a 1-star review be a good thing, you ask? Well, when the criticism is all about a point of historical accuracy, and when the reviewer is, frankly, wrong, it gives me a great opportunity to talk about my favorite subject: History. The accusation was that it is grossly historically inaccurate for Phineas Bell to muse that his 4-year old niece, Eloise, could be President of the United States someday. The reviewer scoffed at the idea, saying that in 1900, when universal suffrage for women was still 20 years off, it would have been ludicrous for a man to think that his niece could be president.
I couldn’t disagree more.
Neither could the actual facts of history.
No, women were not able to vote in federal elections until the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920. However, this didn’t mean that they didn’t have political ambition or dreams of future equality. Far from it. Very far from it if you consider that the first woman was elected to Congress in 1916. Yes, Jeanette Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives from the state of, you guessed it, Montana, not in 1960, but 1916. That’s four years before women gained the federal vote. A woman. Congress. Elected. If a woman could be elected to Congress in 1916, why not shoot for the big office and assume that someday she could be president?
History runs deeper than that, though. It would be false to assume that no one, female or male, had any sort of dreams or ambitions in the political arena whatsoever until—poof!—one day in 1920 everyone decided “Okay, let’s give women the vote”. In fact, the roots of the suffrage movement run deep, deep into the first half of the 19th century. Early women’s rights pioneers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony spent the greater part of the 19th century fighting for the rights of women. They had enough support to fill lecture halls and demonstrations and to make their voices heard at the highest level. They were fighting so that women could participate in government, so why not continue that dream to hope that someday a woman could be the head of that government?
The truth of women in politics stretches even further than that, though. True, women may not have won the vote federally until 1920, but as early at 1869 they were able to vote and participate in government in the western states and territories. Wyoming granted women the right to vote in 1869, and by the end of the century just about every other western state had given women the vote or held referendums to enfranchise them. Again, I propose that the hopes and dreams of the people who supported the movement could easily have extended far beyond just the vote.
Why? And why the West? What made them so advanced and enlightened? Well, one theory was that women were able to have more direct participation in western politics precisely because conditions were neither advanced nor enlightened. Life on the frontier was harsh. In some cases it was primitive and it was lonely. With so little people to tame the land and govern it, women became an essential part of political life. They were sometimes left in possession of land and businesses when their husbands died. Better yet, in some cases they were considered equal partners in enterprising endeavors because the men in their lives had no choice but to count on them. So many women rose to the occasion that their political rights were a natural matter of course.
So impressive was the political power of women in the west and the role that they were given in state and local government, that the suffrage movement back east looked to them as example of what women could do and be and achieve. The Progressive Movement, which is generally held to have started in the 1890s and transformed politics in the early 20th century with platforms supporting universal suffrage, modernization of technology, an end to child labor, and an increase in education, was closely connected with suffragists in the West.
If you take nothing else from this lightning-fast examination of women in politics in and prior to 1900, though, come away with this. Even though women did not gain the vote until 1920, it took decades of work and hopes and fighting and reaching for more to bring public opinion and government around to the point where the work of Stanton, Stone, and Anthony became a reality. So was it unrealistic of me to have a man speculate that his niece could become president in 1900? No! Not at all! And remember too, in 1900, England had a queen, and she wasn’t the first. Women could, and would, rule.
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