Elna C. Green. Southern Strategies: Southern Women and the Woman Suffrage Question. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. xx + 287 pp. $23.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-4641-4; $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2332-3.
Reviewed by Ruth Anne Thompson (Georgia Southern University)
Published on H-SHGAPE (April, 1999)
In recent years, the field of women's history has been enriched by the arrival of several new studies looking at the woman suffrage campaign in the American South. Elna C. Green's Southern Strategies both builds and expands on this work as she reveals the complex approaches and responses of southern women to "the woman suffrage question." Rather than focus merely on those who toiled in favor of suffrage, Green's fine work also illuminates the ideological and logistical struggles of southern women who opposed votes for women. She traces the origins of both the suffrage and antisuffrage movements and looks at the similarities of the two groups as well as the differences. As shown by Green, neither side could avoid the pervasive issues of region and race. In revealing how the "Southern Lady" dealt with these questions, Green helps to explain why, of the thirty-six states who ratified the 19th amendment, only four of those states were in the South.
The first half of Southern Strategies documents the beginning and evolution of both the suffrage and antisuffrage movement in the region. Green submits that southern suffragists followed the same pattern of organization as their northern sisters. New South industrialization and urbanization provided southern women with the opportunities for education and association crucial to create support for suffrage. Green discounts the idea that most southern suffragists turned to the vote as a method of diluting the voting power of black men, although she notes that the movement lost momentum throughout the first decade of the century after southern legislatures had effectively deprived black men of the vote through devices such as literacy tests and poll taxes. Rather, she argues that southern women saw the need for progressive reform, and, as did women elsewhere, they saw the vote as a means to influence legislation.
If southern suffragists saw the vote as a tool to use in their effort to achieve reforms, southern antisuffragists, according to Green, reacted as they did in part to counter those efforts. She argues that the antis had stronger ties to the South's plantation past than did the women who embraced suffrage. Southern women joined the antisuffrage cause because they revered the traditional southern hierarchy with "class, gender, and race relations ... set in a permanent configuration, each
mutually reinforcing the others." (p. 90). Green argues that, economically, the antisuffragists tended to have ties to the regions entrenched economic interests--plantations, textiles, railroads--that naturally resisted regulation, particularly regulation from outside the South. Further, she does a fine job showing the family connections shared by both male and female antisuffragists with the region's plantation belt, both during and after the antebellum period, whether or not those antis had moved to the South's growing urban populations. More is needed, however, on the backgrounds of suffragists in order to support the argument that they had fewer ties to the families of the Old South.
As both suffragists and antisuffragists struggled to live up to the ideal of the "Southern Lady," in the midst of an overtly political battle, they also had to discuss and debate the effect woman suffrage would have on the region's African American population. Green contends that most suffragists used a "statistical argument" to prove that white women outnumbered black women, providing "a moderate means used ... to calm white southerners^Ò fears of black suffrage without engaging in race baiting" (p. 93). Antis, in contrast, warned of the inherent problems in maintaining white dominance should African American women receive the franchise. Further, for those already fearful of interference by the national government, it seemed probable that there would be an increased role for the federal government in state and local elections should suffrage come through an amendment to the United States Constitution, threatening both the hegemony of the Democratic Party and the disfranchisement of African American men.
And, as Green points out, the race and state's rights issues divided not only suffragists from antisuffragists, but created a split in the southern suffragist movement itself. Tracing the suffrage career of New Orleans' Kate Gordon, and her founding of the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference, in 1913, Green shows how state's rights suffragists wanted the vote, but without a federal constitutional amendment. From that point, the debate over women's suffrage was "three-sided." Gordon, an outspoken advocate of white supremacy, argued that a federal amendment would enable the Republican party to get a base in the South and bring about black suffrage. Green shows how the split between the state's rights suffragists and those seeking a federal amendment led to the defeat of both the state and federal amendments in Gordon's state of Louisiana.
In her conclusion, Green does a nice job of explaining why suffragists failed to get legislative support in most southern states, but a broader conclusion would be welcome. The complexity of her subject, the wide range of women and ideologies covered, needs some kind of broader thematic conclusion. For example, the final chapter on the Virginia suffrage campaign is offered as a case study revealing how the various strains of pro and antisuffragism played out in a single state. Green correctly notes that this chapter provides "good drama" and illustrates the organizational wrangling of both sides of the debate. But, while reflecting some of the themes and evidence presented in preceding pages, these pages seem somehow disconnected from the rest of the book. A longer conclusion could go far in providing that link. Likewise the "Epilogue" to the Virginia story provides a fascinating glimpse of Virginia's post-suffrage African American female voters but seems to appear almost as an afterthought to the chapter itself, which I am sure was not Green's intention.
These are minor quibbles, however, in what is otherwise a fine addition to women's history in general, and southern women's history in particular. Through thoughtful analysis and beautifully drawn biographical vignettes, Green brings to life the "Southern Lady" and helps us understand why she did, or did not, support suffrage for herself and other ladies.
Review commissioned by Gayle Gullett, Arizona State University
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Ruth Anne Thompson. Review of Green, Elna C., Southern Strategies: Southern Women and the Woman Suffrage Question.
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