January 2007

Taking off the white gloves

By Connie Gotsch

By 1918, the National American Woman Suffrage Association had struggled for 150 years to win the vote.

“They were so polite,” sighs Boulder, Colo., novelist Sybil Downing, whose own grandmother worked for Suffrage. “(They) pleaded and reasoned.”

And they failed. “It was in their methods,” Downing bluntly states.

Women had to change their tactics, if they wanted the power of the ballot. During World War I, they made that switch.

“They were able to pull off the white gloves and play hardball politics,” chuckles Downing, a fourth-generation Coloradan and self-described political junkie who has held state and local offices, continuing a family tradition.

She also grew up with a strong interest in women’s issues. With that background, she decided to write a novel about “what finally made suffrage work.”

“The Vote” was published last October by the University of New Mexico Press. It spans the period between May and December 1918, a crucial time for women’s suffrage.”

American suffragettes became militant in the early 1900s because two graduate students studying in England happened to picket Parliament with British suffragettes. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns went to jail when police arrested this group.

From prison, they watched the suffragettes’ story appear in banner headlines across England. Later, they heard people commenting on the women who would willingly face incarceration for something they desired.

Paul and Burns decided to change the approach to women’s suffrage in the United States. Women would demonstrate and let themselves be arrested. The papers would draw attention to their political needs.

The two took their idea to the head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Carrie Chapman Carr. She rebuffed them, still believing that patience and reason would bring suffrage.

Paul and Burns founded their own activist group, the National Woman’s Party. Besides going to jail, the NWP sent workers to states where women could vote, to campaign for senators and representatives who supported universal suffrage.

“Patience is a virtue, but there’s a limit,” Downing laughs.

“The Vote” centers on the women Paul and Burns gathered around them, and the tremendous energy the NWP produced.

As the story opens, Denver socialite and college graduate Kate Brennan is on her way to catch a train home from a visit to an old roommate in Washington, D. C.

From her cab, she sees a women’srights march in front of the White House. The way the police treat the demonstrators horrifies her, and she rushes to aid the marchers.

“A protagonist has to have something at stake,” says Downing. For Kate that’s the prospect of returning to a life of privilege at home. “It’s in the back of her mind that she didn’t want to go back to Colorado, and she was looking for a reason not to go.”

A battle ensues between a jeering male crowd and the suffragettes. “Before she knows it, she’s rounded up and arrested with them.”

As the suffragettes’ leader, Burns demands all the arrestees be treated as political prisoners. The judge laughs, and sends everyone to the Occupation Workhouse, a prison full of roaches, rats, maggoty food, and backbreaking labor.

A 14-day stint in jail galvanizes the sheltered, inexperienced Brennan. She joins the National Woman’s Party, and against the wishes of her parents, especially her mother, begins to work for suffrage.

Along the way, she meets a feisty Irish party worker named Mary, on the lam from an abusive boyfriend. Brennan also meets Charlie, a tough reporter with a soft spot — maybe for her. Through them, she learns about herself, and a life she’s never seen.

“Mary would have been a servant in her mother’s house,” Downing emphasizes. “And Charlie has some kind of government job Kate thinks might jeopardize the National Woman’s Party if she gets serious about him.”

Brennan learns her toughest lesson when she comes home to work against the re-election of a senator who has been a family friend. After a vicious quarrel with her mother, she realizes that in the political game, rights come at a price.

“Many women had to choose between family and suffrage,” says Downing. “That really moved me when I was writing this.”

She carefully planned Brennan’s development toward the decision she finally makes about the two, thinking out how she would behave, the things that would influence her, and her personal likes and dislikes.

In addition, Downing studied Brennan’s times. “Those of us who write historical fiction love the research. You kind of have to slap yourself in the face to stop.”

Downing began by reading scholarly books about suffrage in both Boulder and the Western History Collection of the Denver Public Library.

Then she decided to go to Washington, D.C., to learn more about the National Woman’s Party. She flew into Reagan National Airport on Sept. 13, 2001. “We were like the only tourists in town.”

She had all the libraries, monuments, and offices to herself. “The heads of departments came to help me. How often does that happen?”

“The Vote” ends as suffrage becomes inevitable. Still, Downing believes the suffrage story isn’t over yet.

“For example, 53 percent of the work force are women. Mothers.” she says. “Forty-six percent of those are college educated. They still earn 76 cents to a man’s dollar. There are still a lot of issues facing women that need to be addressed.”

She laughs heartily. “There are plenty of women out there with the energy to (address them.)”