I am thrilled to see my article, “The Equal Rights Amendment and the Rise of Emancipationism,” published in Frontiers‘ special issue on the ERA. My article is based on a paper that I presented at “The ERA in the 21st Century” conference in November 2013. It also builds upon two chapters from my PhD dissertation, which I successfully defended in March 2014.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, the suffrage movement grew from a small, fractious campaign into a powerful, unified movement. As my last post discusses, the suffrage movement flourished partly because suffragists increasingly appealed to traditional images of womanliness as well as the racial prejudices of the white middle class. By the early twentieth century, the movement had further expanded to become not only an influential part in women’s organized activities, but also a prominent force in the spectrum of American politics. As a result, the passage of a federal amendment that affirmed women’s right to vote seemed increasingly possible. There are three main reasons for why suffrage-ism became such an overwhelming force: the rise of the progressive movement; the evolution of suffragists’ tactics; and the decline of the masculine political culture of the nineteenth century.
As we mark the anniversary of our nation’s independence, it is important to remember that our founding fathers’ imagined their nation as a domain ruled by equally independent male agents. Until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in August 1920, the status of being a rights-bearing citizen excluded all women. Now it is also true that since the amendment only affirmed women’s right to vote, it ultimately failed to fully dislodge the masculine model of rights-bearing citizenship. Consequently, restrictions on women’s citizenship have persisted in our country’s laws and customs. Even so, we should not dismiss the immense historical importance of the amendment. Why? Because it constitutionally recognized women’s right to represent themselves in the polity and directly participate in the governance of the country.
Further still, there is a lot that can be learned from the tremendous social movement that brought about the passage of federal woman suffrage. For the most part, there are plenty of heroic moments within the history of the woman’s rights campaign. But, there are quite shameful instants too. We should not cast aside these negative parts, but rather recount them with the good, so that we remember there are cautionary elements even when one is on the “right side of history.” On this point, I will discuss in two installments the good, the bad, and what we can learn from the suffrage movement in America.
On a muggy summer morning in August 1920, House Speaker Seth Walker of the Tennessee State Legislature declared: “The hour has come!” He was attempting to call to order a special session that was set to vote on the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. The seventh name on the speaker’s roll call list was Harry Burn, a young twenty-four-year-old Republican lawmaker from McMinn County. Unbeknownst to the suffragists, and Burn’s own colleagues, he carried in his breast pocket a letter from his mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn. His mother’s note instructed him to “be a good boy” and vote for ratification. When the clerk called Burn’s name, he surprised almost everyone by voting in favor of the amendment
To borrow from Joyce Appleby, I consider myself a practitioner of “practical realism.” I appreciate post-modern theorists’ suspicion of supposed essential universal truths; however, I still strive to obtain a degree of professional objectivity in my reconstructions and interpretations of the past.
In general, I investigate the interplay between language and ideas, particularly in the realms of religion, politics, gender, and the law. My current research examines the dueling civic ideologies embedded in the conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in order to shed light on the gendered ideas that have influenced social initiatives, political positions, and legal philosophies. In total, my work seeks to explore how the construction of ideas through language helps to create communal identities and values.