While researching a project about Mrs. Frank Leslie, a 19th-century publisher who bequeathed her fortune to a leading suffragist, journalist Elaine Weiss K’73, P’07 encountered a rivulet of history she couldn’t resist. Mrs. Leslie’s story was big and bold — fabulous wealth, business success, notorious love life — but Weiss followed the rivulet.
It led to sweltering Nashville, Tenn., in the summer of 1920, when a vote by the state legislature would decide the enfranchisement of half the country’s population. After 70 years of women fighting for their right to vote, victory was in sight, but so was defeat. Suffragists needed 36 states to ratify the 19th Amendment; they had 35. Deep South Tennessee, as they saw it, was their last best hope. In the end, passage of the amendment was a cliffhanger that turned on the surprise vote of the youngest man in the legislature.
In the run-up to the vote, two camps of suffragists, plus anti-suffragist women, liquor industry representatives (legislators were plied with bourbon in a Jack Daniels suite), and motley other vested interests, converged on Tennessee by the hundreds to lobby, manipulate, cajole, bully, or bribe legislators to vote their way. Racism was a strategic factor on both sides of the battle.
This story was big and bold, but it was more. The battle drew to Nashville suffragist hero Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and two activists for whom Tennessee was home: Sue White of the National Women’s Party, the more militant suffrage group, and Josephine Pearson, president of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. “That made it a bigger story than just what happened in Tennessee, though that’s quite a dramatic story in itself,” Weiss says. “That’s when I realized this was the story of women’s suffrage and that it had not been told in anything but a scholarly way.”
Weiss wanted to convey the story in a narrative form that would engage the broadest audience, and for that, Mrs. Leslie would have to take a back seat. She does, however, appear in the book Weiss went on to write. It was Catt who inherited Leslie’s $2 million fortune to fuel the enfranchisement fight.
Weiss’ book, The Woman’s Hour, The Great Fight to Win the Vote, was published by Viking last March. It is a thick book with an index, notes, and bibliography, yet manages to be rousing, relevant, and surprisingly suspenseful. It’s a book a fan might wish Lin-Manuel Miranda would pick up to read during his next vacation.
I got a note, a call, from my literary agent saying that she’d been contacted by representatives of Secretary Clinton who had read the book, found it an important story, and wanted to discuss bringing it to a wider audience.
A veteran journalist and author, Weiss worked for three-and-a-half years to render the historical record into a narrative, pushing the button to send her completed manuscript to her editor the day before the 2016 presidential vote. She spent election day knocking on doors on behalf of the first woman presidential candidate nominated by a major political party.
Days later, as Weiss and so many others were absorbing an outcome they hadn’t expected, she wondered what Donald Trump’s victory might mean for her book. She’d anticipated that it would land when the country had elected its first woman president. Weiss recalls asking her editor, “Now what?” Her editor’s response? “[It’s] actually a more important book now.”
At that moment, Weiss didn’t understand what her editor meant. She does now.
“My editor — who is very wise, talented, and politically savvy — was able to articulate what was still inchoate in my mind: that our democracy was about to be challenged in a way we’d not experienced in our lifetimes,” she says. “Women, in particular, would find that rights we’d assumed were secure would now be under threat again.” As she sees it, citizenship rights, voting rights, and press freedom are all under siege.
Weiss points out that a majority of white women voters supported Trump, a candidate who, in her opinion, expressed views and policies that are not in the best interest of women. That’s a situation similar to women anti-suffragists who fought to keep women from getting the vote nearly a century ago. “The history I chronicle in The Woman’s Hour really informs our current political predicament — and that’s what my editor saw so clearly and immediately,” Weiss says.
Her first book, too, was popular history — Fruits of Victory, The Woman’s Land Army of America in the Great War, which came out in 2008. In her career as a journalist, Weiss has written for many publications, including The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The New York Times, and has won numerous awards. For this new book, she had to learn writing techniques she hadn’t used before. “I wanted to make this a story, narrative nonfiction, character driven, with a strong narrative arc. And also with some suspense, because of course, we know what happens. My job was to make you forget that you know it happens,” she says.
Critics say Weiss pulled it off.
In The New York Times, Curtis Sittenfeld wrote that her depiction of events was so vivid it gave her goosebumps. Phil Klinkner, the James S. Sherman Professor of Government at Hamilton, is also a fan. When he thought about whom to invite to speak at the College for Constitution Day, Weiss was the perfect choice. Klinkner had already discovered her book.
“It’s extraordinarily well written. I read a lot of popular history. There were no spoiler alerts. I knew how this ended, but she brought drama to it. And I’m a junky about legislative politics and how laws get passed, and she wrote that very well,” Klinkner says.
He found that Weiss had important things to say about American politics, then and now, for instance, about race and democracy. Klinkner points out that battles about who can or should be a citizen, and what full citizenship rights and inclusion mean in our political system, are again front and center in American politics. The country is seeing a political awakening and mobilization among women that it’s probably not seen since the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s or even going back to the suffrage movement, Klinkner says.
After The Woman’s Hour was published, Weiss happened to bump into a friend of Hillary Clinton’s who suggested that Clinton would find the book interesting. Weiss, thrilled, inscribed a book and handed it over to pass along. Then, immersed in an intense tour to promote the book, Weiss forgot about the encounter. “About a month or so later I got a note, a call, from my literary agent saying that she’d been contacted by representatives of Secretary Clinton who had read the book, found it an important story, and wanted to discuss bringing it to a wider audience,” Weiss says.
The upshot — with Clinton as executive producer, Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television will produce a drama based on the book. Clinton tweeted in August, “I’m thrilled to be joining forces with Steven Spielberg to bring @efweiss5’s book The Woman’s Hour to TV. It’s about the women who fought for suffrage nearly 100 years ago. We stand on their shoulders, and I’m delighted to have a hand in helping to tell their stories.” Weiss, too, is an executive producer, working with Clinton on what will be a multi-part program.
Ask Weiss about her hopes for the television project and her answer is the same as for her book: that people come away with a sense of how fragile America’s democracy is and how ambivalent Americans are about democracy. “Because, in fact, we’ve never wanted everyone to vote. And we still seem not to. But I think recognizing that this is something we have to overcome, and we have to work hard to make sure that we’re the democracy we think we are,” she says.
Weiss wants people to understand what women and their many male supporters sacrificed for women’s enfranchisement of women, and how feminists who followed pushed boundaries and confronted closed doors. “I want [the book] to bring back history to realize what it took but also for it to teach the lesson that change is hard and you need persistence. It’s not going to be a kind of one-and-done march — OK, we had a women’s march, wasn’t it great, now what? It takes planning, it takes strategy, it takes persistence, and it takes courage,” Weiss says.
Nicole Taylor ’19, one of a handful of Hamilton students who had dinner with Weiss on campus, understands the truth of that. Since her first year of college, Taylor has helped Hamilton students learn about registering to vote. She co-founded and chairs the student ambassador team of HamVotes, a nonpartisan group that educates students about taking part in elections. On National Voter Registration Day, Taylor and other HamVotes volunteers registered roughly 70 students. All told, HamVotes had registered approximately 300 students by the end of September.
As Weiss talked about the tactics and effort employed by the suffragists, Taylor concluded they were some of the best community organizers the country has ever seen. “I think that [their work] is incredibly applicable today, because right now we’re seeing a ton of really powerful community organizers, especially women, especially people of color,” she says.