Doldrums and Suffrage Movement Discussion (March 1997)


Query From Ann Colbert colbert@cvax.ipfw.indiana.edu 12 March 1997

I seem to remember reading in more that one place that the mid-1890s were known as the "doldrums" in the woman suffrage movement. At the time it seemed unimportant but now I wonder if anyone could point me to information concerning the doldrums . I've already looked in the volume of His. of Wom. Suffrage, where I thought I'd seen the reference. Was it in a biography of Anthony perhaps?
Further, does anyone have information on WHY this time frame is so named? Did it seem so to a few individuals or was it a legal observation? Thanks for any help anyone can give.

>From Jon Miller jon-s-miller@uiowa.edu 12 March 1997

"Doldrums" sounds a lot like neurasthenia, a prominent disease of the 1890s which afflicted many affluent white Americans. Most famously, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's nervous experience formed the basis of a text commonly read as feminist, "The Yellow Wallpaper". The best book on the subject is Tom Lutz, _American Nervousness_(Cornell UP, 1991).

>From Ginger Frost gsfrost@samford.edu 12 March 1997

The theory that the 1890s were the "doldrums" is a fairly old one. In British history, it has been challenged strongly by David Rubenstein in his book called _Before the Suffragettes_, and most recent works (at least on the European side of the Atlantic) have repudiated that view. If you need any other citations, I'd be glad to reply privately, though I assume you are mostly interested in the American case.

>From Cynthia Harrison harrison@gwis2.circ.gwu.edu 13 March 1997

In _Century of Struggle_, Eleanor Flexner writes: "[T]he years from 1896 to 1910 came to be known among suffragists as "the doldrums." p.256, revised edition. She gives no cite, however.

>From Joan R. Gundersen jrgunder@coyote.csusm.edu 13 March 1997

The period 1895-1910 was called the doldrums in Eleanor Flexner's _Century of Struggle_. The idea was that suffrage groups actually folded in a number of marginal (i.e.southern) states, and that women won no referendums during the period. The "doldrums" is an old term (at least going back to the colonial period in the U.S.) that refers to an area in the Atlantic where the winds were inconsistent and often caught sailing ships which then drifted for weeks before escaping the area. Modern historians of reform challenge whether this was really such a "down" period. It may well have been a period of the guard regrouping, and preparation for new initiatives.

>From Cara A. Finnegan caraf@nwu.edu 13 March 1997

While the period 1896-1910 has widely been referred to as the "doldrums" primarily because of the lack of success of state suffrage referenda and the rise of a more organized anti-suffrage campaign, others reject this conception. See Sara Hunter Graham's essay, "The Suffrage Renaissance: A New Image for a New Century, 1896-1910" in the edited volume, _One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement_, ed. Marjorie Spruill Wheeler (Troutdale, Oregon: Newsage Press, 1995). Graham Hunter argues that the period from 1896-1910 may not be seen as the "doldrums," but rather as a period of "careful and successful rebuilding, in which the leaders of the NAWSA deliberately reshaped the image of their movement. They also expanded their ranks in ways that greatly enhanced the prestige and effectiveness of the suffrage movement, recruiting wealthy and socially prominent women as well as a new generation of energetic and talented college-educated women" (158). Instead of viewing this period as "the doldrums," Graham Hunter seems to be making an argument common to many social movements--that suffragists needed to turn inward in order to redefine their mission, and only after they did so could they return to a more active public engagement.

>From Kimberly Springer kspring@emory.edu 13 March 1997

More specifically for the women's movement, the doldrums is considered the period following the suffragette movement but receding 1960s feminist activism. That is, after women won the right to vote, many of the organizations were left wondering what to do next and some floundered. For more info I'd recommend: _Survival in the Doldrums: The American Women's Rights Movement, 1945-1960_(Oxford U Press, 1987) by Verta Taylor and Leila Rupp.

>From Rebecca Edwards reedwards@vassar.edu 13 March 1997

I have a theory about why the late 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s was "the doldrums" for the U.S. suffrage movement. In brief: during the period of intense party competition before 1896, especially during Populism's heyday in the west, suffragists had room to maneuver and won several state victories (Colorado 1893, Idaho 1896, Utah--as part of statehood legislation--1896). Then there were no more
state victories until after 1910. This was due to a combination of factors, in my view, but chief among them the dominance of conservative Republicans at the national level and the lack of party competition nationwide.

A more complicated and subtle version of this argument (I hope!) will appear in my book _Angels in Machinery: Gender in American Party Politics From the Civil War to the Progressive Era_, forthcoming from Oxford UP in January 1998.

References to the "doldrums" are, I think, in Carrie Chapman Catt's _Woman Suffrage and Politics_; Elizabeth Cady Stanton's memoirs; Katherine Anthony's biography of Susan B. Anthony, and possibly also in Abigail Scott Duniway's _Path-Breaking_.


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