“Recasting the Vote”, by Cathleen D Cahill, is in four parts divided by time periods: 1890-1913, 1913-1917, 1917-1920 and 1920-1928 and focuses on five women of colour: Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, Mabel Ping-Hau Lee, Nina Otera-Warren, Carrie Williams Clifford and Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin and their contributions to the suffrage movement during this critical time. Each is a woman of colour and culture, their heritage forms who they are and their approach. It also means they experience and fight racism. Whilst this additional element should, perhaps, have been obvious to me, it was unexpected and heartbreaking. These women fought so many battles on so many fronts, sexism, racism and then enduring a world war, their journeys are inspiring.

In addition to the five leading ladies, Cathleen weaves in many more women of the time including the leading white suffragettes. It is an elegantly told history of America through the eyes of women and highlights the key movements that have led to today’s high tensions around the building of America and the place of different races in it. The five ladies represent the Native American, the Spanish American, the Chinese American, the Mexican American and the African American. Each shares how their countries originally come to be in modern day America and the impact racism had in shaping their lives.

The suffrage movement is often thought of as that, one movement forward through time, but this book highlights just how many strategies were tried including the ones that failed. The British came with their opinions, success in China contributed a different approach, the African American had some success in gaining rights and that influenced their approach and so on. Many movements from multiple cultures across a continent over decades experienced small and big wins before achieving their eventual goal. There were many disagreements and a lot of politics behind it all too. What we see as the right to vote had a lot more going on to win it! And when it was won, a new fight began to expand what it meant: to see women as men’s equals, and that’s still our fight today. It’s rather sobering to think that over a hundred years later, I could use the same lines of rhetoric as these ladies to encourage equality but it encouraging to see their perseverance did pay off, they got the vote eventually!

The back cover summaries this well, this is an “unfinished struggle”. We have made gains but we are not done yet. Fascinating, moving, insightful, this book is all that but it is also a call to fight on for women’s rights, much work remains. It’s a five out of five on the enJOYment scale and highly recommended!

From the back cover:

We think we know the story of women’s suffrage in the United States: women met at Seneca Falls, marched in Washington, D.C., and demanded the vote until they won it with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. But the fight for women’s voting rights extended far beyond these familiar scenes. From social clubs in New York’s Chinatown to conferences for Native American rights, and in African American newspapers and pamphlets demanding equality for Spanish-speaking New Mexicans, a diverse cadre of extraordinary women struggled to build a movement that would truly include all women, regardless of race or national origin. In Recasting the Vote, Cathleen D. Cahill tells the powerful stories of a multiracial group of activists who propelled the national suffrage movement toward a more inclusive vision of equal rights. Cahill reveals a new cast of heroines largely ignored in earlier suffrage histories: Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Ša), Laura Cornelius Kellogg, Carrie Williams Clifford, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, and Adelina “Nina” Luna Otero-Warren. With these feminists of color in the foreground, Cahill recasts the suffrage movement as an unfinished struggle that extended beyond the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. 

As we celebrate the centennial of a great triumph for the women’s movement, Cahill’s powerful history reminds us of the work that remains.

Cathleen D. Cahill is associate professor of history at Penn State University and the author of Federal Fathers and Mothers: A Social History of the United States Indian Service, 1869–1933, winner of the 2011 Labriola Center American Indian National Book Award and finalist for the 2012 David J. Weber-Clements Prize, Western History Association.

I received a complimentary copy of the book from University of North Carolina Press through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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