Corrine M. McConnaughy. The Woman Suffrage Movement in America: A Reassessment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xv + 272 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-01366-7.
Reviewed by Jill Frahm
Published on H-SHGAPE (August, 2014)
Commissioned by Julia Irwin (University of South Florida)
Woman Suffrage through Programmatic Enfranchisement
In The Woman Suffrage Movement in America: A Reassessment, Corrine M. McConnaughy sets out to “develop a general framework for understanding why politicians act to widen the democratic circle, and use that framework to explain the politics of woman suffrage” (p. 4). She argues that previous studies of the woman suffrage movement focused too closely on the suffragists and not enough on the lawmakers who actually gave women the right to vote. To fill this void, she examines the legislative process in several states to discover how and why a majority of their legislators were convinced to support woman suffrage.
McConnaughy’s study begins with a general discussion of suffrage in America and analyzes how the electorate expanded over the decades. In connection with this, she offers what she describes as two models of enfranchisement: strategic enfranchisement and programmatic enfranchisement. She defines strategic enfranchisement as when “a single political party acts to enfranchise new voters expecting to reap electoral rewards” (p. 34). As an example, she describes how the Republican Party fought for suffrage for African Americans in the years following the Civil War and was rewarded with the votes of these new members of the electorate. Programmatic enfranchisement, on the other hand, is when pressure for change comes from the voters. A third party appears that holds so much leverage with voters that the major parties are forced to address the key issues presented in that new party’s platform or face the defection of a large number of voters.
After rejecting strategic enfranchisement as a framework to explain how women gained the vote, McConnaughy turns to individual states to build a case for programmatic enfranchisement. Using Colorado, Illinois, and Michigan as examples, she traces the suffrage workers’ efforts in each state to convince legislators to grant them the vote. In each case, she shows how the women’s alliances with strong third parties--such as the Populists in Colorado or the Progressives in Illinois--resulted in a successful drive for woman suffrage. The third parties, needing funds, political skill, and workers, welcomed help from suffragists. In return for their hard work, the third parties rewarded the women with real support for suffrage. This forced politicians from the major parties to back woman suffrage or risk losing votes to the third party. McConnaughy then turns to Louisiana and New Mexico to show how racial politics and the lack of a viable third party limited chances for women to gain the right to vote through their state. Finally, McConnaughy applies this model of programmatic enfranchisement to other states, as well as the United States as a whole, to further underscore her argument. She argues that the 1912 success of the Progressive Party helped force Republicans and Democrats on the national level to take woman suffrage seriously. Thus, she concludes that programmatic enfranchisement contributed to successful campaigns for woman’s suffrage at both the state and national levels.
McConnaughy’s descriptions and arguments relating to the individual states and programmatic enfranchisement are excellent. She clearly shows how leverage through third parties brought women suffrage in Michigan, Illinois, and Colorado. Her descriptions of how political and racial constraints limited women’s opportunities for suffrage in Louisiana and New Mexico are also well executed. McConnaughy is less convincing, however, when she tries to expand her framework to include other states that granted women full or partial suffrage before the Nineteenth Amendment. The main weakness with her argument is that she does not provide enough detail in connection with the other states to completely convince readers of her theory. It remains difficult to determine if, in spite of her many statistical tests, “conditions were consistent with the programmatic story of enfranchisement” across other states (p. 209). Her statistics indicate that states like New York and Idaho had these criteria and women’s alliances with the third parties probably brought them the vote. Her argument is less convincing in connection with states like Washington, Texas, or Rhode Island. Here there is no evidence of third party strength; at the same time, a single major party was comfortably in control of the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature. She also fails to show that conditions right for programmatic enfranchisement did not exist in other states that failed to grant women suffrage, particularly those outside the South. Finally, her model does not address the effect of many other factors, such as Utah’s efforts to enfranchise women to help protect the Mormon religion. More details on the situations in the other states are necessary to determine if her framework holds up in states other than those she examined in significant detail.
Also troubling is how quickly McConnaughy dismisses strategic enfranchisement as a factor in the efforts to get women the vote. She claims that “politicians had ample evidence that women were ... just as politically heterogeneous as their husbands” and thus not a potentially cohesive voting bloc (p. 51). Although she clearly shows that suffragists were a politically diverse group, she provides little evidence that politicians actually recognized this fact. Further, she describes how the liquor lobby came out against women’s suffrage, believing that if women got the vote, prohibition would follow. She also describes how Louisiana politicians saw women voters as a threat to the political dominance of the New Orleans machine politicians, because women were thought to support reform governments. Although this does not detract from her argument for programmatic enfranchisement in the states she analyzes more comprehensively, it is not impossible to believe that the idea that women could form a powerful voting bloc might have influenced some politicians to vote for or against woman suffrage.
In spite of these weaknesses, The Women Suffrage Movement in America is a valuable addition to the literature on the woman suffrage movement. In the specific state examples McConnaughy examines, she shows how alliances between the women’s groups and strong third parties assembled the necessary support for suffrage. Although individual state suffrage stories, like that of Colorado, are not unfamiliar, McConnaughy brings several states together, highlighting patterns in the enfranchisement process that have not been so clearly described before. The model of programmatic enfranchisement broadens the understanding of why politicians moved to give women the vote and our understanding of the woman suffrage movement.
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Jill Frahm. Review of McConnaughy, Corrine M., The Woman Suffrage Movement in America: A Reassessment.
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