Fighting for Democracy: On Sara Egge's "Woman Suffrage and Citizenship in the American Midwest"

Fighting for Democracy: On Sara Egge's "Woman Suffrage and Citizenship in the American Midwest"

Sara Egge | Woman Suffrage and Citizenship in the American Midwest, 1879-1920 | University of Iowa Press | 2018 | 242 Pages


In her first book, Woman Suffrage and Citizenship in the American Midwest, 1879-1920, Assistant Professor of History at Centre College Sara Egge examines the struggle for American women’s suffrage during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Focusing on the Midwest, Egge argues that in rural communities women’s uninterrupted involvement in the public sphere fostered a gradual embrace of woman suffrage. From the first decades of settlement to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, community participation, along with gender and ethnicity, structured the interrelated issues of local reputations, national citizenship, and voting rights. 

Pushing back against the established historiography of woman suffrage at the national level, Egge tracks the victories and defeats of grassroots activism in its local and rural specificities. Far from a panorama of the political diversity of the Midwest, from the industrial cities of Michigan to the populist tradition of Kansas, the book shows how much difference a few miles and a state line could make in political culture. Egge focuses on the tumultuous public lives of three rural counties nested near the borders of Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota. The significant differences of behavior on the topic of woman suffrage in the three counties point towards state politics and county dynamics as critical elements in the social and legal struggle for equality.

Egge opens by suggesting that suffrage activism in the Progressive Era stemmed from women’s prolonged involvement in their rural communities. She contends that “Yankees established belonging as an essential Midwestern value, [...] embraced community engagement and encouraged strong spirit of civic responsibility.” To nuance this rather essentialist view, she carefully qualifies rural suffragists as small-town, middle-class Yankee women. These three variables (class, ethnicity, and geography) make for an equal number of structural dichotomies: “Yankee”—Americans from New England or the mid-Atlantic states—versus the mostly German and Scandinavian foreign-born population; “middle-class” versus poor and uneducated; small-town residents versus farmers. With their attached cultural views and political convictions, these characteristics portrayed, by contrast, the foreign-born, poor, and uneducated farmer as the typical opponent to women’s suffrage. Regrettably, as the story progresses from the late 19th century to the 20th century, Egge does not quite account for the fluidity of these different social groups. Regardless of this lack of critique towards the categories themselves, Egge delivers excellent analysis when focusing directly on the material impact of women in community projects. The organizing acumen of the suffragists made them successful money raisers, especially for communal buildings like churches. Women’s organizations not only dealt in informal influence but were actors and financiers of key projects geared towards the betterment of their communities.

For Egge, this long view of female involvement explains the strength of grassroots activism for women’s suffrage, but also the confusion between different issues championed by “community-minded” women. For example, most provincial associations for women’s suffrage started inside local chapters of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). To the dismay of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), local realities made distinguishing between the issues of suffrage and temperance impossible if only because most of the women active in suffrage were also staunch advocates of temperance and often took positions in the local branches of both organizations. For operatives at the national level, this confusion was partially responsible for the repeated failures to secure the right to vote.

Egge intentionally focuses on these repeated failures. She argues that failed campaigns ultimately crafted the winning discourse around women’s suffrage. In a more revealing fashion than in states where women secured the right to vote sooner, the rural Midwest exposes a more complete series of intellectual shifts made when confronted with setbacks. By studying the failed campaigns of the 1890s and 1900s, Woman Suffrage and Citizenship convincingly explains that when the liberal tradition of the right to self-determination seemed to fail, activists pivoted to the idea of “municipal housekeeping” and framed the vote as a moral issue for the protection of homes. Although more successful, this strategy did not secure suffrage in the early 1900s. Activists adjusted their framework once again and, by the 1910s, crafted the winning argument of suffrage as a civic duty.

These carefully researched comparisons lead Egge to her most compelling analysis, that of World War I’s interplay with suffrage in the Midwest. She demonstrates that the combined impact of women’s involvement in the war effort and the ubiquitous xenophobia directed against foreigners, especially Germans, remodeled the definition of American citizenship and the role of women in the United States. As she puts it: “As anti-German hysteria grew to a fever pitch in the Midwest in 1917 and 1918, suffragists embraced nativism to achieve the right to vote.”

The war provided an opportunity for middle-class Yankee women to demonstrate their extraordinary skills at fundraising and community organizing. With such efforts as Liberty Loan drives, canning food for the front, and sawing for the Red Cross, results were undeniable, and placed woman activism as the epitome of patriotic civism. The rapidly spreading fear towards supposedly undemocratic tendencies in foreign-born residents perfectly aligned with the conflict suffragists and temperance advocates had long led against the voting power of the German-speaking, foreign-born population so overwhelmingly represented in rural Midwestern counties. These attitudes manifest in women’s involvement in Americanization programs and new institutions of questionable legal authority like the Councils of National Defense. 

The war years were a tipping point in a long history of activism, and xenophobia made years of struggle on the suffrage issue a self-evident, bi-partisan consensus. In South Dakota in 1918, the woman suffrage amendment included a clause lengthening the number of years of residency before naturalization and preventing non-naturalized citizens from voting. The bill passed, and the enfranchisement of women went hand in hand with the disenfranchisement of foreigners, some who had been voting for years on first papers. Indeed, a spectacular reversal was under way. When the US Congress passed the 19th amendment in 1919, half of the first fifteen states to ratify it were Midwestern. 

Because Egge’s story is one of citizenship, immigration, and nativism, it seems a missed opportunity that it does not engage more with Native American history. From the 1880s and the impact of the Dawes Allotment Act on Native American peoples, to the involvement of Native American soldiers in World War I, to their citizenship status granted in 1924, this history might have provided an even more nuanced argument about who was truly “foreign-born” in the United States during the Progressive Era. Recent works by Karen Hansen, Thomas Grillot, and others assuredly forge a way towards including a broader swath of perspectives in this Midwestern rural story. 

At the core of Woman Suffrage and Citizenship in the American Midwest lies a fascinating problem for historians and political scientists alike: How do political realities dramatically shift in a modern democracy? By focusing on the interaction between local, state, and national sentiments, Egge compellingly forces her readers to engage with more than well-crafted discourses by recognized public figures, turning our gaze instead towards personal and contingent situations repeated in all their diversity across the rural Midwest. Egge’s work challenges the kind of continuity we might expect from the history of the suffragist movement. Rather than treating the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment as continuity in feminist trans-Atlantic thought throughout the second half of the 19th century, Egge emphasizes the decades of women’s visibility and actions among their rural communities as an explanation for the growing support for woman suffrage “from below.” Last but not least, her work complements the more extensively covered debate between African-American activists and women suffragists and complicates even further the moral implications of woman suffrage history. By connecting the rise of immigration policies and nativism to women’s struggle for suffrage, Egge builds bridges between the heartland’s history and the evolving scholarship on intersectionality, a most welcome connection in the expanding field of Midwestern studies.


This review is part of our series on Midwestern history, a collection of reviews on texts of historical significance in the region. Writers interested in contributing to this series are encouraged to contact its editor, Jacob Bruggeman.

Trauma-Feeding

Trauma-Feeding

"The Pale King" and the Midwestern Canon

"The Pale King" and the Midwestern Canon

0