Vote and Voice: Women's Organizations and Political Literacy. By Wendy Sharer. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. 218 pp. Cloth, $50.00, ISBN 0-809-32588-8).
Reviewed by Melissa Ooten
Wendy Sharer's Vote and Voice: Women's Organization and Political Literacy, 1915-1930 explores how women in the League of Women Voters (LWV) and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) used "collective rhetorical practices" to participate in the process of citizenship after enfranchisement. At base, Sharer strives to move beyond narrowly defined concepts of "citizenship" and "politics" that traditionally have privileged only prominent individuals, formal rights, and abstract understandings of citizens' "duties." This volume, which is a part of the Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms series edited by Cheryl Glenn and Shirley Wilson Logan, presents an engaging, concise analysis of the advantages and drawbacks experienced by two organizations that employed a tradition of maternalist, non-partisan rhetoric to demand participation in the male-dominated space of politics.
Sharer addresses what she believes is a silence in the literature on women's activism between 1920 and 1960. The prevailing "wave model," she argues, focuses on women's activism in the 1910's and 1960's and obscures a history of women's continued use of rhetoric to voice political demands. She describes as "painful" her attempt to fill in this gap, both in her own and others' educational history. While I would argue that the scholarly literature has addressed this gap, my own experiences in public schools and undergraduate courses indicates that Sharer is painfully correct in arguing that women all too often disappear from the curricula of political participation from the passage of the 19th Amendment until the 1960s. By focusing on how certain women participated in politics during the decade of the 1920s, Sharer hopes to partially address this absence.
At the root of Sharer's study is the understanding that the ballot did not translate into women gaining power within established white, male, elite hierarchies of government. Her study investigates the tactics that newly-enfranchised women in the LWV and WILPF employed to carve a space for themselves in politics. Sharer skillfully details how these two groups challenged a conventionally male-constructed "civic tradition." In large part, she finds that these women drew upon a familiar, and effective, tradition of rhetoric to make their voices heard. Sharer chose these two groups to explore ways in which women challenged modes of existing political discourses, because both included membership rolls filled with former suffragists and each employed what she terms "collective, widespread rhetorical practices" to institute reform from a position outside of traditional politics.
Sharer's focus on the LWV and WILPF highlights how uses of rhetoric and political activism converged: Chapters 2 and 3 chronicle how the WILPF deliberately used constructions of maternalism to promote a space for women in international diplomacy. The WILPF promoted cooperation between nations and critiqued the artificial boundaries of nation-states that stratified peoples and fostered competition rather than collaboration. Chapters 4 and 5 move to an analysis of the political strategies employed by the women of the LWV after 1920 when they discovered that political parties' gestures towards them were simply empty motions, not intended to include women in the formal administration and business of the parties. Deliberately constructed as nonpartisan, the LWV hoped to offer an expanded definition of the "political" while simultaneously minimizing divisive discourse within the organization. Yet, Sharer shows, these LWV women recognized that political power rested within the traditional party structure and knew that women had to strive for positions of power within the formal organization of political parties. Thus, as we often see with marginalized groups' political participation, these women experienced a constant tension. They wanted to work outside of the party system and critique its hierarchical structures, but they also knew that they must gain power within those very structures if they ever expected to change them. Sharer tells an interesting story in tracing these two organizations' deployment of particular rhetorical strategies to achieve their political goals, although, too often, she portrays each group as a monolithic entity, giving the reader no real sense of the internal debates over the uses of rhetoric, debates that surely took place within these groups.
In her conclusion, Sharer finally notes that these organizations deliberately defined themselves as "women's" organizations, and that the term "women" was both class and race-specific, referring in this context to white, middle-class women. While it is not mentioned, they were also most likely to be residents of the urbanizing Northeast. Until that point, there is very little attention paid to race and class in this study. While the groups Sharer studies were nearly all white, middle-to-upper class women, a discussion of women's enfranchisement after the passage of the 19th amendment is not complete without recognition of the fact that most African-American women in the Southeast had no access to the vote in the 1920s. In a study that declares its commitment to moving beyond privileged notions of citizenship, the glaring absence of attention to race and class undercuts the analysis. For example, while Sharer notes that the tradition of settlement house work informed women's later political traditions, she fails to mention how the work of these middle-class, white women, actively engaged in teaching the process of "Americanization" to largely immigrant, working-class women, further informed their ideas about citizenship and politics, two cruxes of her study.
Lack of attention to how race and class informed these women's views on citizenship and political participation and their use of rhetoric to engage in politics does not mean that Sharer fails to accomplish her goals. She successfully shows how a marginalized group of women worked together to challenge hierarchies of power through their use of existing rhetorical traditions--reading, writing, and speaking. Thus we see how the politically disadvantaged can empower themselves as political participants. Perhaps most importantly, Sharer effectively illustrates why teaching skills of political engagement to students should be a concern for all of us in the academy, and she gives us an exemplary model study to use of two past groups who challenged the political hierarchies of their time--hierarchies that may still seem too familiar to us today.
Melissa Ooten is the assistant director of the WILL (Women Involved in Living and Learning) Program and a faculty member in the Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies program at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Va. She will defend her dissertation, "Screen Strife: Movie Censorship in Virginia, 1922-1965," in October 2005.
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