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Tegtmeier Oertel, Kristen, fl. 2007. "Review of How the Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914". In Collected Book and Web Reviews (Alexander Street Press, Alexandria, VA, 2005) pp. [N pag] [Bibliographic details]


How the Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914

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How the Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914

By Rebecca J. Mead. (New York: New York University Press, 2004. 288 pp. Cloth, $55.00, ISBN 081475676X; Paper, $22.00, ISBN 0814757227).

Reviewed by Kristen Tegtmeier Oertel, Millsaps College

After reading Rebecca Mead's detailed study, no one can deny the importance of the West to the suffrage movement's eventual success. In How the Vote Was Won, Mead "reintegrates this important region into national suffrage history," and demonstrates how early western victories were not the result of male "gifts" or political expediency, but rather, were due to the diligent and tireless activism of western women (1). Furthermore, these western campaigns provided both a training ground for national organizers like Carrie Chapman Catt and a crucible in which to test various ideals, tactics and strategies, many of which would eventually serve the national movement well. Mead claims that suffrage succeeded in these western states because women crafted ideologies and methods that attracted diverse constituencies, reaching out to farmers, miners, Populists, Socialists and even immigrants, by arguing that woman's suffrage served both economic and political justice. She goes on to suggest that these western victories paved the way for future state referendums and eventually the federal amendment, and challenges the assumption that "progress" moved only from east to west.

Mead's title plays on the familiar phrase and movie, "How the West Was Won," and is likely not accidental. Contrary to the romantic myths of the West popularized by the 1963 Academy Award-winning film, the "new" western history finds that the West was won largely because of the Anglo domination of Native American, Asian and Latino populations. Mead notes that racism also played a significant role in the suffrage debates in the West and claims that the vote was won in part because suffragists took advantage of both the popularity of radical politics and the resonance of white racism in the region. For example, women at the June 1894 suffrage convention in California appealed to the growing Populist sentiment in the state and argued for economic justice, but also displayed a racist image that seemingly belied their claims for justice. The image, titled "The American Woman and Her Political Peers," equated women's political status with that of an Indian, a convict, a "lunatic," and an "idiot," thus tapping into the racial fears that plagued so many white pioneers (77). Anti-Chinese and nativist sentiment fueled some suffrage rhetoric, like that articulated by Washington suffragist Grace Cotterill, who claimed, "'I deserve as much voice in the government under which I and my children must live as does my Chinese laundryman…or the Italian laborer'" (157).

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But Mead's greatest contribution to suffrage historiography lies not in her candid acknowledgement of the movement's limitations, but in her explication of the careful alliances western women forged with farmer-labor-progressive constituencies. Suffrage worked when and where women linked their nascent feminist ideology with workingmen's concerns and downplayed the assumed (and often real) connection between temperance and suffrage advocacy. For example, in both Colorado and Montana, women appealed to rural farmers and miners and explicitly courted the labor vote. They also reached out to middle-class clubwomen in hopes of lending more respectability to the movement, but the working-class support proved crucial in each state referendum.

Western suffragists attracted working men and women, Populists and eventually Socialists and Progressives by promising their support for economic equity and fairness in the workplace, but ultimately they focused on the central theme of justice. Meredith Reynolds, a Colorado newspaperwoman, told national organizers Anthony and Catt, "we are pushing our claims for suffrage simply and solely on the grounds of right and justice" (67). An Oregon man told one suffragist that "it seemed to him that what was back of it all was justice" (103). In state after state, women articulated this theme, and bridged the often thorny political divide by rallying around the common denominator of justice. By transcending partisanship, they also hoped to avoid the failure that plagued the partisan state campaigns in Kansas and elsewhere.

Mead repeatedly references the failed 1894 Kansas referendum, but she chooses not to analyze the suffrage campaigns there, a curious omission that elicits several other questions. How does she define the West? Why not include states like Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, all western states (by mid-nineteenth-century standards) that waged well-known campaigns and where, in Kansas's case, some of the methods and activists later used in other state campaigns were first tested? This uneven treatment is understandable, given the wide scope of the project, and Mead's attention to detail would make it almost impossible to investigate each state campaign equally. Indeed it is her in-depth analysis of state campaigns in places like California and Colorado that could serve as models for future studies of other states.

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Mead's careful retelling of the suffrage battles in the West firmly situates the region in the national movement and convincingly argues that western women's ability to capitalize on the radicalism nurtured by western politics provided them with the right formula to gain the vote. This formula, reaching out to labor, Progressives and radicals and preaching justice, was tested in the West and shipped eastward via women like Catt and Jeanette Rankin. While more research needs to be done to evaluate the degree of influence these western women had on the final suffrage debates of the late teens, Mead has made it unavoidable to adequately explain national victory in 1920 without first discussing the successes and failures in the western United States.

Kristen Tegtmeier Oertel received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin and is currently associate professor of history at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. Her manuscript, Bleeding Borders: Gender, Race and Violence in Pre-Civil War Kansas, will be published by Louisiana State University Press, and she is currently working on a biography of Clarina Nichols with co-author Marilyn Blackwell.


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