Q&A with Dawn Durante, compiler of 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage

Dawn Durante is a senior acquisitions editor at the University of Illinois Press. In honor of Women’s History Month, we asked her some questions about her new anthology, 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage: A University of Illinois Press Anthology.

100 Years of Women’s Suffrage is an anthology of essential scholarship on the suffrage movement previously published by UI Press. What were your goals and inspiration in compiling this anthology?

In 2017, I realized that the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment was just a few years away, and I was thinking about ways to publish a suffrage book during the centennial year, given it was such a momentous anniversary. Because researching, writing, and peer reviewing a book can be hard to coordinate with an exact timeline and event, I was thinking about creative solutions to ensure we would have a book. I had an epiphany that was inspired by the idea of a greatest hits album, the Disney Vault, and the press’s Common Threads series that uses backlist journals content: I could curate an anthology by using chapters that specifically spoke to the theme of suffrage that were already published in books.

So, the book became more than a celebration of the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment: it also showcases UIP’s longstanding commitment to women’s history. Each essay in the book was previously published in a UIP book or monograph, but I also envisioned the book having an original introduction. During some early conversations about the project with an extremely supportive network of scholars, everyone suggested that I talked to Dr. Nancy Hewitt about the introduction. Nancy is a UIP author and former series editor, and it was an absolute gift to the volume when she said yes! Not only does her introduction give background and context to suffrage history, but Nancy gave great advice about the volume in general, and a chapter from her book, Southern Discomfort: Women’s Activism in Tampa, Florida, 1880s-1920s, appears in the collection.

As I was compiling the volume, one of the goals that emerged was to make sure that the anthology went beyond a focus on 1920-era suffrage work to show the contexts and events leading up to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment and—perhaps most importantly—past it. The Nineteenth Amendment is hardly the end of the story of women’s involvement with voting issues, and along with commemoration, we can recognize the shortcomings of some of the activism that often failed to be inclusive. And so, the book also includes stories about struggles for equal access to voting over the last century that are ongoing and impact politics today.

What surprised you during your research for this anthology?

Compiling 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage involved combing through the University of Illinois Press backlist to find out which books included chapters dedicated to issues relating to the women’s vote. It was both fun and fascinating! It is not every Press that can boast a commitment to women’s suffrage history across several decades. I was pleasantly surprised that the history underscores that suffrage wasn’t its own monolithic movement. Most suffragists weren’t single issue activists and were involved in a variety of activities. There is one chapter in the volume from Kimberly Jenson’s Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War called, “Whether We Vote or Not—We are Going to Shoot: Women and Armed Defense on the Homefront” that shows how violence against women in a war on foreign soil impacted the fears and activism of women in the US. Jenson’s piece focuses on women who advocated for gun rights for both sexes, and this was entwined with the work to secure voting rights, but more specifically, larger issues of citizenship and being treated as equal citizens, whether it be the right to arms or the right to vote—and often both.

While the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote was passed in 1920, 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage describes suffrage as an ongoing battle. What are some key issues women are still facing in regards to getting and using the vote?

While the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote, there are systemic mechanisms that keep women—and others with the right to vote—away from the ballot box. Much of this is embedded in society through the double helix of policy and discrimination, and the second half of the book turns its attention to ways that women used the vote once they had it, but also looks at obstacles women faced in getting to the ballot. African Americans faced violence at the polls, women were prevented from running for office, and cultural dynamics and structural hurdles continue to perpetuate a gender vote gap, which disproportionately impacts women of color. Several chapters at the end of the anthology speak to contemporary voting gap issues, and the last piece in the volume by M. Margaret Conway, “The Gender Voting Gap: A Comparison Across Racial and Ethnic Groups” provides some fascinating, but also troubling, statistics.

100 Years of Women’s Suffrage features the stories of many influential feminists. If you could have a conversation with any one of them, who would you choose and why?

There are so many fascinating figures in the book! The chapters in the anthology feature the stories of individuals who participated in a range of suffrage activism and generally fought for additional rights for women, and readers of the book will see familiar suffragist’s names alongside women and groups that they perhaps weren’t familiar with before. I’d love to imagine what a dinner party with all of them would be like.

But there is one woman too briefly mentioned in the volume who I wish I could have included more material on. I would cherish a conversation with Ida B. Wells. Her activist commitments touched on the most urgent human rights issues of the time—lynching, civil rights, and suffrage. She was a journalist, and as an editor, I’d be particularly interested in talking with her and learning from her about ways to leverage the power of the word to influence change. Her writing was coupled with action and extreme bravery, and it is hard not to wonder what Wells and her collaborators would have thought about the contemporary political landscape in the US.

In your opinion, what is the biggest takeaway from this anthology?

In the last election, the person elected president lost the popular vote by 2.9 million votes. With the 2020 impeachment hearing, the senators that found the president not guilty represent 18 million fewer people than those who found him guilty. There are deep issues of representation across the entire voting system, and this is nothing new. After 1920, we saw the Equal Voting Rights Act in 1965, but Carolyn Daniel’s piece in 100 Years of Suffrage shares stories of violence and institutionalized racism in the 1960s that no law could magically solve. More contemporarily, we’ve seen voting issues like with how the state of Georgia handled the 2018 gubernatorial election between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp, and there are ongoing restrictions designed to limit access to voting polls—whether those are voting ID laws, shorter polling hours at fewer voting locations, or general misinformation being disseminated about access to the vote. The gerrymandering maps that show the lengths politicians have gone to redraw districts for their own party’s gain are scandalous. I hope this anthology underscores that the fight for just and equal access to the vote continues and it is something that impacts all of us, and while we can celebrate the achievement of the Nineteenth Amendment, we can also recognize how we could have and can do better.

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