The Original Activists, a conversation between authors Rebecca Roberts and Lucinda Robb
Today, authors Rebecca Roberts and Lucinda Robb join us. Their new book, The Suffragist Playbook: Your Guide to Changing the World, looks back at the leaders and lessons they taught us while also looking forward to today’s your activists who are changing our present and our future.
The authors both have personal connections to activism and the women’s movement – Roberts is the daughter of journalist Cokie Roberts and granddaughter of Lindy Boggs and Robb is the daughter of Lynda Robb and the granddaughter of Lady Bird Johnson.
Lucinda: In the past few years we’ve seen a massive groundswell of people, many of them students, becoming active in Black Lives Matter, Climate Change, Me Too, Gun Control and other social causes. Having spent the last few years writing about the tactics of the women’s suffrage movement over 100 years ago, at what point do you watch the news and think, to quote Yogi Berra, that it’s Déjà vu all over again?
Rebecca: Every day! Especially here in Washington. Every time someone organizes a march down Pennsylvania Avenue, or protests in front of the White House, or holds the President accountable for his own quotations, or even takes an event that unfolds in unexpected ways and then milks the resulting press coverage for all it’s worth – all I can think is that the suffragists did it first. And the opposite is also true. I see contemporary activists using tools like Twitter or Instagram and just imagine what the suffragists would have been able to accomplish if they had the same access.
Lucinda: Can’t you just picture Susan B. Anthony tweeting about getting arrested for voting in 1872? Even without social media, she still managed to get plenty of publicity at her trial. The judge told her six times to sit down and be quiet, but she wasn’t having it. You could even say she persisted. Later she wrote a book about the proceedings and for the rest of her long life, constantly reminded people she was a convicted criminal. The suffragists have so many great stories, and having spent so much time reading their speeches, petitions, letters and even their diaries, after a while you feel as if you know them personally. Almost like they are old friends you haven’t seen recently but still care about.
Rebecca: I agree – you do feel like you get to know the subjects of your research. And there are some women you come to admire, but whose literal presence you might not actually enjoy. I’m thinking of Alice Paul, who was incredibly impressive, but so single minded and evidently humorless that her company was probably a heavy lift. Whereas Doris Stevens, who wrote Jailed for Freedom, and Maude Younger, who complied the National Woman’s Party’s infamous card file, were both hilarious. What about you, is there a suffragist that you wish you could do a zoom call with?
Lucinda: As a mom struggling with school being at home, Elizabeth Cady Stanton immediately jumps to mind. She had to juggle being one of the great writers and leaders of the suffrage movement with raising seven rowdy children. One time the older kids tied corks to the baby and threw him into the river to see if he would float – true story! There’s a letter where she complains about how difficult it is to find them good tutors and shoes that fit, and how they have to be taken to the dentist (who knew they had dentists back then?), so clearly some things never change. But in the end six of her children went to college, including both of her daughters. One of them, Harriot Stanton Blatch, followed in her mom’s footsteps and came up with the idea for suffragists to picket in front of the White House. The very first time anyone tried it! Speaking of which, have you ever done any picketing?
Becca: I have participated inprotests on behalf of women’s issues: Take Back the Night marches, the Women’s March of 2017, things like that. And I’ve been a part of many political rallies. I have never picketed literally, with a sign and everything. But I love seeing generations of women at those events, marching arm in arm, backing a cause together, even if they have differing perspectives. What about your daughter, is she ready to take to the streets?
Lucinda: She’s 14 and mostly stuck at home for now, so she hasn’t progressed much beyond making posters, but she’s primed for when things loosen up. She read some of our early drafts and wrote lots of useful comments in the margins with her orange sparkly gel pen (teenagers are brutally honest). Her favorite suffrage tactic, which resonates in our smartphone age, was about paying attention to how things look. You wrote our chapter on this, do you have a favorite example?
Rebecca: Oh, there are so many. The suffragists were masters at crafting viral images. Think about Inez Milholland in the 1913 Suffrage parade, wearing a flowing white dress and starry crown as she rode a very noble looking horse. She struck such a heroic figure that her crown was the inspiration for Wonder Women years later. She looked fantastic. And that was no accident – Inez Milholland was a labor lawyer, an educated, ambitious, accomplished professional woman, at a time when that was pretty rare. But the newspaper men (and they were almost entirely men) of the time could never see past her looks. They inevitably wrote about her as “the most beautiful suffragist.” So Alice Paul, who organized that parade, figured if she put Inez in a gorgeous dress on a gorgeous horse, maybe the sexist reporters would actually take her picture and give some press attention to the suffrage cause. It totally worked – that image is still striking over 100 years later. It’s been such a joy to learn this history, but it isn’t all heroes and horses.
Lucinda: There are some ugly parts too. There was a lot of blatant racism in the suffrage movement, and a lot of voices that were ignored. Back in the late 19th century, Stanton and Anthony helped write a massive six volume history of the movement – which they donated to libraries everywhere – that almost completely left out Black suffragists. But Ida B. Wells was not someone you could dismiss. She called out white suffragists for using dangerous stereotypes about Black men and shamed the largest women’s club in America into condemning lynching. Long before Rosa Parks, she refused to give up her seat on a segregated public train. And when white suffragists tried to push her to the back of the 1913 parade, she jumped right into the middle and marched proudly along. She didn’t wait for permission, she did what she thought was right, just like a lot of activists do now.
In the end, we tried not to put anyone up on a pedestal, but instead emphasized what the suffragists did that was successful, the ways they struggled, and how they managed to make big changes that still matter today. And we hope that is what our readers learn – you don’t have to be uniquely special or even perfect to change the world, you just have to be willing to try.
Meet the authors
Rebecca Boggs Robertsis the author of Suffragists in Washington, DC: The 1913 Parade and the Fight for the Vote and Historic Congressional Cemetery. She has been many things, including a journalist, producer, tour guide, forensic anthropologist, event planner, political consultant, jazz singer, and radio talk show host. Currently she is the curator of programming at Planet Word, a museum, which opened on October 22, 2020. She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, three sons, and a big fat dog.
Lucinda Robb was project director for Our Mothers Before Us: Women and Democracy, 1789–1920 at the Center for Legislative Archives. The project rediscovered thousands of overlooked original documents and produced a traveling exhibit and education program highlighting the role of women in American democracy. She also helped organize the National Archives’ celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1995. She lives in Virginia with her husband, three children, one dog, and more than five hundred PEZ dispensers.
About The Suffragist Playbook: Your Guide to Changing the World
Do you have a cause you’re passionate about? Take a few tips from the suffragists, who led one of the largest and longest movements in American history.
The women’s suffrage movement was decades in the making and came with many harsh setbacks. But it resulted in a permanent victory: women’s right to vote. How did the suffragists do it? One hundred years later, an eye-opening look at their playbook shows that some of their strategies seem oddly familiar. Women’s marches at inauguration time? Check. Publicity stunts, optics, and influencers? They practically invented them. Petitions, lobbying, speeches, raising money, and writing articles? All of that, too.
From moments of inspiration to some of the movement’s darker aspects—including the racism of some suffragist leaders, violence against picketers, and hunger strikes in jail—this clear-eyed view takes in the role of key figures: Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, Ida B. Wells, Alice Paul, and many more. Engagingly narrated by Lucinda Robb and Rebecca Boggs Roberts, whose friendship goes back generations (to their grandmothers, Lady Bird Johnson and Lindy Boggs, and their mothers, Lynda Robb and Cokie Roberts), this unique melding of seminal history and smart tactics is sure to capture the attention of activists-in-the-making today.
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication date: 10/27/2020
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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