In conjunction with our Young Suffrage exhibition, we would like to share a series of interviews with academics who are actively studying the suffrage movement and women’s rights around the world. Below is an extensive Q&A with author April Young Bennett. Questions from Girl Museum are bolded.
How did you become interested in studying suffrage and women’s political movements?
As a teen, I learned leadership skills from the Young Women program at my church. I was taught to set goals, work hard and stand up for what I believed in. I used the skills my church taught me as an activist working for better laws that affect women and girls, but I found that leadership skills were more useful outside the church than within it. Women in my religion are banned from most church leadership positions. Boys are ordained to the priesthood at the age of twelve. That is when they start helping with our weekly sacrament service at church, while girls have to sit and watch. For adults, there is an even longer list of things only men are allowed to do.
Eventually I realized that I wanted equality all week long—even on Sundays! I helped form an activist organization working for women’s equality within our faith community. We spent a lot of time brainstorming and had good ideas, but I began to wonder if we weren’t recreating the wheel. Certainly, someone had been through this before and could give us some pointers?
When we marched to a meeting at our church headquarters, church leaders let us listen to the meeting over the internet, but not come inside. It was for men only. I remembered that suffrage leaders Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been through a similar experience at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. Organizers banned women, but let them listen to the meeting from a balcony behind a bar and a curtain.
That sparked my curiosity. Had suffragists had other experiences like my own? What could I learn from them?
What was your research process like for the Ask A Suffragist books? How long did the books take to complete?
At the beginning, I didn’t even realize I was researching a book. I started studying the suffrage movement to teach myself how to become a better activist. I knew that movements are not built by famous people working alone, so I wanted to learn about rank-and-file workers like me. I also wanted to broaden my perspective by learning about people who weren’t like me, including suffragists from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. And I was hoping to find a book that would be fun to read like a novel, not like a textbook.
I couldn’t find a book like that, so I read all sorts of things: memoirs, biographies, history books, diaries, letters, and meeting minutes. After about two years, I realized that what I had learned would be great information to share. I decided to write the book I wasn’t able to find when I started this journey. It took about two more years to write the first book in the Ask a Suffragist series: Stories and Wisdom from America’s First Feminists. I organized the book so each chapter focused on one question modern activists like me might ask our foremothers, answered by stories about suffragists who grappled with those questions. I wrote in the style of a novel, to make it a fun read.
What do you think is the most common misconception people have about young women and their place in the suffrage movement?
I think the most common misconception is that suffragists were all old ladies! We get that idea from the photos in our textbooks—mostly pictures of elderly women with grey hair. But most of these women were young when they became activists. We just don’t have many photos of them when they were younger because photography wasn’t widely available when the first generation of suffragists was young. Also, the older the photo, the more likely that it has been lost or destroyed before our time.
Future suffrage leader Lucy Stone made her first protest for voting rights at her childhood church in Massachusetts. When her local church leaders tried to punish a deacon for hosting a speech by a female abolitionist, Lucy disrupted the male-only vote by demanding her right to vote in his support. Marie Zakrzewska, who immigrated to the United States and became one of the first female American medical doctors, fought for her right to attend midwifery school in Berlin when she was a teenager. The school administrators thought young women would be too distracting to male students. Sisters from a prominent free black family in Philadelphia, Margaretta, Harriet, and Sarah Forten, grew up participating in the abolition movement alongside their parents. They became abolition and suffrage leaders as adults.
Girl Museum Inc.