Cat Winters: U.S Suffragettes in YA Fiction
13th Feb 2015
I grew up not knowing much at all about the women’s suffrage movement. In schools in the U.S we learned that Susan B. Anthony fought for equality at the polls, but we never actually read any books about her, and by all accounts she was the only major voice in the U.S. suffrage movement.
As an adult, my eyes were opened when I watched the movie Iron Jawed Angels, a 2004 HBO production that begins with a pivotal 1913 women’s suffrage parade in Washington, DC, and moves toward the passage of the U.S. women’s suffrage amendment in 1919.
I learned about real-life suffragists Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Ida B. Wells, and countless others. I then turned to the film’s source material, a book called Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman’s Party, 1912-1920, by Linda G. Ford (University Press of America, 1991).
The mental and physical anguish that these early-1900s suffragists endured – imprisonment, hunger strikes, force-feedings, family opposition – deeply moved me, and I thought, “Why on earth didn’t I hear of these women before I reached adulthood?”
An Idea Emerged…
I realised I’d never seen suffragists portrayed much in fiction, and novels are one of the ways that I myself discover underrepresented moments in history. As a writer of historical fiction, I knew that one day I’d want to tackle the subject of the fight for women’s suffrage, but I didn’t yet have a plot in mind.
In 2011, I felt the urge to write a book about a Victorian stage hypnotist. Initially, I didn’t even think of the suffrage movement for such a novel, but then I asked myself the following questions:
“What if I make the protagonist of this new story a budding young suffragist who attends her first women’s rights rally the same day a hypnotist arrives in town?” “What if the suffragist’s father is the type of Victorian gentleman who’s terrified of modern women?” And “What if that father hires the hypnotist to remove the rebellious thoughts and dreams from his daughter’s head?” Thus, my newest novel, The Cure for Dreaming, was born.
To learn what it was like to be a suffragist in the 1800s and early 1900s, I first went to sources that allowed me to read the words of those women who fought for equality. I turned immediately to publications by a local suffragist leader, Abigail Scott Duniway, who helped bring the vote to the women of Oregon eight years before equal suffrage reached the entire U.S. in 1920.
I also read “Yours for Liberty”: Selections from Abigail Scott Duniway’s Suffrage Newspaper, (edited by Jean M. Ward and Elaine A. Maveety), Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words, by Lynn Sherr and Ten Days in a Mad-House, by Nellie Bly which exposed the Victorian tendency to ship women—even completely sane ones—to mental institutions with appalling conditions and practices.
And on a slightly lighter note, the popular suffrage anthems written and sung in the era—such as “Keep Woman in Her Sphere,” by D. Estabrook, and “Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?” by L. May Wheeler—showed me how women used music and satire to spread the word about their plight.
Other helpful texts included Winning the West for Women: The Life of Suffragist Emma Smith Devoe, by Jennifer M. Ross-Nazzal and, surprisingly, The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation, by Carry Amelia Nation, the latter of which was written by a woman who demolished saloons with an axe as part of the U.S. temperance crusade—a movement closely tied to the fight for equal suffrage.
What Surprised Me Most Upon Publication…
As The Cure for Dreaming’s October 2014 release date drew nearer, interviewers started asking me what I thought of the current “Women Against Feminism” movement in social media.
Anti-feminist campaigns have been around since the earliest days of the suffrage movement, but what’s so shocking about the modern movement is that it’s come at a time when we’ve learned so much about injustices against women. We’re aware of the mistakes of the past, and yet those mistakes continue to get made in the present.
Furthermore, during the 2014 U.S. midterm elections, voter turnout reached the lowest levels in seventy-two years. Less than one hundred years after women risked with their lives and their mental well-being to bring equality to the voting polls, over half of eligible U.S. voters—both male and female—chose not to utilise their right to vote.
Why it’s important to read about the history of Suffragettes…
Suffragists not only gave us groundbreaking new opportunities to let our voices be heard, but they left their own voices behind in print to remind us how far we’ve come and to inspire us to keep voting and fighting against injustices.
The writings of the suffragists continue to be vibrant, relevant, and empowering, even in this modern age. My sincerest hope is that when women read The Cure for Dreaming, they will find themselves inspired to learn more about this too-often-overlooked movement in history and they’ll feel compelled to make their own voices heard with a roar that future generations will hear.
– by Cat Winters
You can access a pdf copy of the first chapter of The Cure for Dreaming here: Chapter One Extract.