Top positive review
A new way of looking at the origins of the U.S. woman suffrage movement
Reviewed in the United States on January 1, 2015
The publication of "The Myth of Seneca Falls" is a big event for those of us who like to live in the suffrage world. Professor Tetrault has come up with the first really effective counter-narrative to Eleanor Flexner's classic "Century of Struggle".
Professor Tetrault argues convincingly that the famous Seneca Falls convention of 1848 was only part of a flow of many events with at least equal claims to our attention. She "foregrounds" the work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony as writers of women's history. It was Stanton and Anthony who in later years promoted the supposed significance of Seneca Falls. They did so to place themselves at the center of a movement that was in fact widespread and chaotic, with contested and scattered leadership. With the tale of Seneca Falls, they won the fight for the minds of the public and movement activists. In time, this led to the preeminence of Anthony as a suffrage icon and some degree of centralization in leadership.
Tetrault's account does not go on into the 20th century; in my view the partial centralization of the movement around the image of Anthony as revered pioneer had important benefits in later stages. Anthony's organization (the National American Woman Suffrage Association) served as a launching pad for the careers of Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul, who played vital roles as the movement built to tremendous dynamism and strength during the 1910s.
One of the many merits of Tetrault's book is its discussion of the tension between the active, independent grassroots of the suffrage movement and the efforts of some to achieve a dominant national leadership. Again stepping beyond Tetrault's narrative, one way the story of the 1910s can be told is that many local successes, plus increased coordination and control at the center, led to a balance between local activism and central control that allowed the movement to successfully take on the political establishment.
Tetrault's portrait of Susan B. Anthony is also a strong point. As presented by Tetrault, Anthony is ambitious, forceful, sometimes ruthless, and an effective striver for power and influence. Anthony's success in her maneuvers not only won her fame, but also--as I have indicated above--benefited the movement by providing Anthony as its rallying point. Tetrault is right in noting that Anthony has not yet found her biographer, in spite of some prior attempts. Tetrault's version of Anthony is far more rounded and human than any other I have encountered.
While I would still recommend "Century of Struggle" as the first book to read about the suffrage movement, anyone who has a serious interest in the subject will also have to read Professor Tetrault's book. It is clear now that much of the "plot" of Flexner's book was a creation of Stanton and Anthony, and that there is more work to be done in weaving still more narratives of the great battle for women's voting rights in the U.S.