The Untold Suffragists: A Conversation with Bridget Quinn

Laurie Ann Doyle interviews Bridget Quinn, author of “She Votes: How U.S. Women Won Suffrage and What Happens Next.”

The Untold Suffragists: A Conversation with Bridget Quinn

BRIDGET QUINN’S FIRST BOOK, Broad Strokes, 15 Women Who Made Art and History (in That Order), was published in 2017. She portrays the lives and work of an eclectic group of not-so-famous female artists, including Lee Krasner (who also happened to be Jackson Pollock’s wife), San Francisco sculptor Ruth Asawa, and contemporary artist Kara Walker. Broad Strokes grew out of Quinn’s frustration about the exclusion of women from the traditional art canon, as well as her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and elsewhere.

Quinn’s new book, She Votes: How U.S. Women Won Suffrage, and What Happened Next, honors the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, and the continuing battle for women’s rights it inspired. Rather than trying to cover the entire sweep of the women’s movement in the United States, Quinn looks at a diverse set of feminist leaders in politics, art, sports, and music.


LAURIE ANN DOYLE: She Votes celebrates over 200 years of the fight for women’s rights in the United States, profiling women such as Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt and poet Audre Lorde. How did you decide which particular women and specific events to depict?

BRIDGET QUINN: I wanted to run two parallel — and intersecting — stories. One, the “usual suspects” of more mainstream history (read: white), running from Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the mid-19th century, through Alice Paul and the Silent Sentinels leading up to ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, and onward. But the other thread is that of underknown and underappreciated stories, of less acknowledged players in the struggle. For example, the many contributions of Native women, from Haudenosaunee women in Upstate New York, to Native basketball players from Montana, to Wilma Mankiller, the first principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, to contemporary poets like Joy Harjo, Layli Long Soldier, and Natalie Diaz. Or the powerful voices and action of Black activists from Sojourner Truth to Ida B. Wells to Audre Lorde. And then my own idiosyncratic interests are also in play — art, sports, the American West.

In the first chapter, you tell us that the story of how US women got the vote usually begins with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Instead you decide to start on the morning of January 21, 2017, as you are preparing to join the Women’s March, the largest single-day protest in American history. What prompted you to launch the story there? 

The Women’s March offered a specific moment of present activism from which to look back on women’s history in the United States, in all of its fraught, messy, and sometimes awesome push toward greater equality. It also occurred to me at the time that the march was filled with art — both on signs and as a kind of performance — and that’s a big part of the book: art as a lens on liberation.

Your publisher calls She Votes an intersectional story. What do they mean by that?

The essential feminist theory of intersectionality was developed by legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to address how oppression and discrimination involve multiple identities in addition to gender. That includes race, class, sexuality, and more. It’s essential because, A) true, and B) because for far too long white feminism recognized little, or nothing, outside itself. That said, the book is an intersectional story insomuch as it includes the histories of many kinds of American women.

The writing in this book pulls the reader in close. Your style is conversational, as well as often laugh-out-loud funny. You weave in bits of your own history as a proud Montanan woman now living in San Francisco. You use words like “badass,” “pissed off,” and “BFD.” What made you decide to take this approach?

I was a high school humanities teacher for many years and an adjunct professor teaching art history, and much of teaching young people is performance. I mean that in a good way. Personally, I pretty much hated high school and found it often tiring, boring, and dare I say, pointless. As a teacher and writer, I’m competing with so many other far more compelling interests — friends, lovers, food, Netflix — and a good story offers some hope of edging alongside those distractions. Including my own story is a way of saying that we all intersect with some of the amazing stories and moments of history. Slang or swear words are a way of puncturing some of the bloviating that too often accompanies writing about history and art, and a way of saying: this won’t hurt, it will be fun, come with me.

One fascinating aspect of She Votes is the significant influence that Haudenosaunee women (called Iroquois by European settlers and later Americans) had on the early suffragists. Did discovering a Native bedrock for American feminism surprise you?

Though I hadn’t been explicitly aware of it, Native women as a source of inspiration for American women also didn’t totally surprise me. For one thing, it helps explain why there’s this sudden feminist awakening in a tiny Upstate New York town — Seneca Falls, named after the local tribe who were still very much part of Upstate New York life in the mid-19th century. I was also aware that the idea of a union of states had come to the so-called Founding Fathers via their experience of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. This union of Native tribes offered an excellent model for independent political and cultural entities bound by commerce and mutual defense. So, if the United States itself springs from a Native source, then it makes sense that rights for women did, too.

I also knew that the Haudenosaunee were matrilineal — meaning descent was traced through the mother — and also that women could own and sell property without a man’s permission, which was not true for American women at that time, so it makes sense that white women might look at Native women and say, Wait a second, the way we live isn’t the only way. What I found so interesting was that Haudenosaunee influence was both philosophical and practical. For example, the traditional Seneca attire of a tunic or skirt over loose pants is very like the bloomers that became the explicitly feminist clothing of the 1850s and onward, made widely popular by Amelia Bloomer, also of Seneca Falls.

She Votes tears down myths surrounding the passage of the 19th Amendment, including the one that Sojourner Truth proclaimed the words, “Ain’t I a woman?” (which she likely didn’t). What other important stories did you uncover?

One of my favorite stories in the book is about Oregon novelist and suffragist Eva Emery Dye, who in researching a novel about the Lewis and Clark expedition publicized the contributions of a young Shoshone woman who was with them. Sacajawea is an essential figure in American history now, but it wasn’t until Dye wrote a best-selling historical novel featuring a then mostly unknown Shoshone mother who was not only part of the expedition, but cast a vote alongside them in Oregon, that Sacajawea gained prominence in the American narrative. Dye’s book did well and she used some of the money to spearhead a campaign for a public sculpture honoring Sacajawea, done by Colorado artist Alice Cooper (not that Alice Cooper), and dedicated by Susan B. Anthony at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition of 1905 in Portland. At a time when so much public art in the United States is under scrutiny, Portland has a heroic-sized bronze statue of Sacajawea — a central figure in US and Oregon history — tucked away at the bottom of a hill behind the zoo. Both the story and the statue deserve to be better known.

I’m interested in the key role women of color play in the history of women’s rights in the United States. We read about the significance of Native women, Black women, and many others. Yet early suffragists held clearly racist views. How do you reconcile this? 

To reconcile the racism of so much white suffragism is certainly not to excuse it. We know from many recent experiences with Black Lives Matter that holding liberal political views is no shield against racism. A racist society creates racists, something we all need to fight against, always. So, while early suffragists were almost universally also active abolitionists, when it came to gaining the vote for themselves versus Black men getting the vote before them, early suffragists turned on Black men, including Frederick Douglass, one of the first important public figures to speak out for women’s right to vote. The racist language and action of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony was obvious and desperate and despicable, while later suffrage racism was no less destructive, from Alice Paul asking Black women to march at the back of the 1913 Suffrage Parade, to Carrie Chapman Catt deploying race in trying to win Southern votes to the cause of ratification of the 19th Amendment. All of this hurt the cause for women’s rights and women’s equality and continues to do so. Through it all, Black activists like Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and many many more, including Asian, Native, and other women, shared the struggle, but had to wait longer to reap the promises of the 19th Amendment.        

Unfortunately, Native Americans couldn’t vote until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 (which still didn’t guarantee voting rights state by state), while Chinese immigrants couldn’t even become citizens until 1943. For Indian immigrants, full rights didn’t come until 1946, and for Japanese immigrants it wasn’t until 1952. It took the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to secure legal protection for African American voters, though as we’ve just seen in Georgia, voter suppression around race certainly continues.

She Votes harnesses the power of art to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, featuring 100 vividly beautiful illustrations by 100 women artists. You are an art historian. What role does art play in the ongoing struggle for women’s equality? 

As we’ve seen in recent Black Lives Matter protests and in the Women’s March of 2017, art is a powerful tool for communication, empathy, and understanding. New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz listed “The Signs, Posters, and Clothing at the Women’s March” as number one on his end-of-year “10 Best Art Achievements of 2017.” And right now, the Smithsonian is already gathering Black Lives Matter art and signs left on the fence in front of the White House for its permanent collection. Confederate statues are coming down because they were erected with the understanding that art conveys a permeating message about what matters, who matters, and what narrative should win out. With all that in mind, art is essential in the struggle for women’s equality and in all activism.

As you point out, there’s a long tradition of one generation of women artists honoring an earlier generation of important women, for example, sculptor Alice Cooper honoring Sacajawea with a statue in Portland in the early 20th century. How is this tradition in evidence elsewhere in your book? 

I might point to the example of the Guerrilla Girls, anonymous art activists who assume the names of women artists of the past — Frida Kahlo, Rosalba Carriera, Käthe Kollwitz, etc. — to right art world, and other, wrongs of the present. But for me the book itself (and most of my career) is an homage to women artists of the past, from Impressionist and white suffragist Mary Cassatt to Black, lesbian, mother, poet, activist Audre Lorde, and so many others. I’m looking to shine light on the women who brought us here and on whose shoulders all of us stand. 

You finished writing She Votes at the end of 2018, and so much has happened since then. Can you talk about publishing something that takes as long as a book during a time of upheaval in the United States?

Well, it can be unnerving. For one thing, suffrage stories I hoped to “break” into public awareness came out well before the book did. More troubling, though, is things I chose to leave out (the book is a brief overview at best). The flu pandemic of 1918, for example, has resonance now that it didn’t when I was writing the book. Other important movements, like Black Lives Matter, I mention briefly at the end of the book, but it would have a prominent role if I wrote it today. History keeps moving — that’s a good thing. But books have to conclude somewhere, and maybe that always involves some regret.

What’s up next for you, writing wise? 

After my upcoming speaking engagements and art reviews fell through in early March, sheltering-in-place gave me time and space to finish a book proposal I’d been working on for three years — about art, the French Revolution, 18th-century feminists, and a 21st-century showdown. Specifically, it’s the story of an artistic rivalry between French portraitists Adelaïde Labille-Guiard and Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and my 30-year effort to right the egregious historical wrongs that followed. I’m thrilled that as of June, Painting Ladies (my working title) will be my third book with Chronicle. I’ve been researching it most of my adult life. Now to start writing.


Laurie Ann Doyle is the author of World Gone Missing, winner of the Nautilus Book Award in Fiction, and recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination for her story “Like Family.” Her latest article “The Hopis of Alcatraz” appears in Alta Journal.

LARB Contributor

Laurie Ann Doyle is the author of World Gone Missing, winner of the Nautilus Book Award in Fiction, and recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination for her story “Like Family.” Her latest article “The Hopis of Alcatraz” appears in Alta Journal.


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