“Epic” is an adjective popularly thrown around these days, especially by young people wishing to express their approval of some pop-culture phenomenon like a new Star Wars movie. Some would argue that the term has become so overused that it is losing its meaning. So, upon picking up a copy of Susan Zimet’s new book Roses and Radicals: The Epic Story of How American Women Won the Right to Vote, some might be tempted at first to roll their eyes. Those who choose to read further than the subtitle will be rewarded with a surprisingly juicy and engaging tale, and come away with a deepened appreciation for how “epic” the fight for women’s suffrage in America truly was.
In her introduction to the book, due to be published next month by Viking, Zimet recalls how news of commemorations of the 2017 centennial of the enfranchisement of women in New York State made her realize that this wasn’t a familiar enough story. “As I read, it struck me: I’m a woman and a former elected official, yet I knew so little about this enormous part of American history — my history. The struggle for suffrage wasn’t covered when I was in school…. Why didn’t I know any of this?”
So Zimet — New Paltz’s former town supervisor and now executive director of the Hunger Action Network of New York State — decided to delve more deeply into the history of the women’s suffrage movement and digest her research into a book geared toward middle-graders that could be used in schools to heighten awareness of this important aspect of our heritage. The result is an introduction to the subject that, at 168 pages, can be inhaled in a day and still leave most of us far more knowledgeable about the women’s rights struggle than the vast majority of Americans.
Better than that, it’s an exhilarating read, breezily written in language that neither talks down nor bogs down. Readers of any age will get to know the often-quirky, sometimes-conflicted personalities involved in the First Wave of the women’s movement in a way that impresses us with their courage and persistence without glossing over their faults. Many of us have encountered Victoria Woodhull’s name as a one-line reference to the first woman ever run for the US presidency; how many of us knew that she got her start as Cornelius Vanderbilt’s personal clairvoyant, using her salary (and very prescient stock tips) to start a radical newspaper?
The eight-decade period covered in Roses and Radicals begins with a young Elizabeth Cady Stanton getting her consciousness raised about sexism in the Abolitionist movement while attending the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 and ends with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920 (with a nod forward to the failed effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in 1979). Along the way, Zimet digs deeply into the ways that the battles for rights for women and for people of color sometimes supported one another, such as when Frederick Douglass endorsed female suffrage at the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, and sometimes clashed, such as when Stanton vocally opposed passage of the 15th Amendment because it restricted black suffrage explicitly to males.
Such disagreements about strategy and tactics not only serve to make this history vivid and engaging, but they also provoke the reader to consider broader parallels and link the struggles of the past to issues of the present. Zimet succinctly illustrates the ways in which Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul and other suffrage movement leaders repeatedly had to wrestle with such questions as whether a pragmatic or radical approach would be more effective, whether it hurt or helped the movement to accept help from dubious allies, or whether the focus properly belonged on the state or the national level. As it turned out, different groups of women (and their male allies) made different choices for different reasons — not all of them purely idealistic — and all had vital roles to play.
It’s easy to imagine a teacher using Roses and Radicals as a prompt for “big-picture” classroom discussions of social movements. The message that meaningful change can take a frustratingly long time, during which action strategies need to evolve to suit the circumstances, is one that might prove useful to contemporary adult voters and activists as well. If you’ve ever felt like tearing your hair out when you hear Bernie and Hillary supporters investing energy in yelling at each other over who was the legitimate 2016 Democratic candidate that could better be used working together to shape a post-Donald future, there might be some people on your holiday gift list who would benefit from a dip into Roses and Radicals.
Unfortunately, it’s not scheduled to hit bookstore shelves until January 16. Expect to see a once-familiar face around town quite soon, doing book-signings instead of being a lightning rod for Town Hall firestorms. “New Paltz is a very politically active town. Yet I doubt that many know the story of the fight for women’s right to vote. Young girls and boys would be shocked to learn how few rights young girls and women had during this period,” Zimet says of her intended audience. “Their story was inspirational to me, and should give every young girl and boy the courage to face adversity and never, ever give up on your dreams.”