A Little History of The History of Woman Suffrage

March 23, 2005
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The American Women’s Suffrage movement is surely one of the best documented of all social revolutions thanks to the remarkable six-volume, 6,000 page, History of Woman Suffrage. Leaders of revolutions often write their memoirs (if they live long enough) but rarely do they preserve and record the detailed records of people and events as did suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Stanton and Anthony, leaders of the more radical of the two contingents of the suffrage movement, were determined that the history of the woman’s movement not be forgotten as most women’s history up to that time had been forgotten. Their intention was to write a history of the movement much of it based on Anthony’s diaries, scrapbooks, and innumerable records. When work on the History of Woman Suffrage actually began in the late 1870′s it represented the realization of a long-time ambition on the part of both women.

In 1876 Anthony started the process when she sent boxes and trunks of material, saved for more than twenty-five years, to Stanton’s home in Tenafly, NJ. The plan was to write a single volume covering the suffrage movement from its beginnings up to 1876. Stanton wrote several chapters between 1876 and 1880, but it was 1880 before they were able to get together in Tenafly and seriously undertake the project. The plan to cover the period in a single volume turned out to be optimistic; the 878 page Volume I went only as far as 1860.

Both the history of the writing of the books and the publishing history are somewhat complicated; this article is an attempt to briefly summarize both and to correct a few common misunderstandings about the books.

The History includes “impassioned feminist commentary’ (as described by the Encyclopedia Britannica) as well as the documentary history of the suffrage movement: primary documents, biographies of suffrage leaders, letters, and records of state suffrage movements.

The copyright holders of the first three volumes are Stanton, Anthony, and Matilda Joslin Gage, a Fayetteville New York suffragist, author, and editor of The National Citizen and Ballot Box. Stanton was the primary author with some contributions from Gage. Anthony who disliked writing (in fact, it was not her strong point) was the historian, source of information, and business manager.

After Volume III was complete, Stanton bowed out leaving a determined Anthony to complete Volume IV with the help of professional journalist Ida Husted Harper, author of the three-volume Life and Works of Susan B. Anthony. Harper was the sole author of the last two volumes, published after the deaths of Anthony and Stanton.

The six volumes comprise the primary source of information about the women’s suffrage movement and the women who participated in it. While far from perfect, the History is Remarkably complete.

A little history of the suffrage movements helps clarify one of the criticisms of the books. In the years immediately following the Civil War, the abolitionist and suffrage movements were divided over the issue of whether or not to insist upon including women in the constitutional amendment giving African-American men the right to vote. The split ultimately resulted in the formation of two women’s suffrage associations. Anthony and Stanton led the National Woman’s Suffrage Association (NWSA), the more radical of the two. Although the History covers NWSA most completely, both Anthony and Stanton made efforts to include the history of the more conservative American Woman’s Suffrage Association (AWSA), an effort thwarted by the refusal of AWSA’s most prominent leader, Lucy Stone. Stone argued that they could not write the history of the movement – that should be left for future historians and that Anthony and Stanton, as leaders of the more radical “ultras” could not write a history of the whole movement. Nevertheless some history of the conservative, or ‘Boston,’ contingent of the movement was included. Stone sent some brief biographical facts and Stanton’s daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch, wrote a 60,000 word history of the AWSA after chiding her mother for leaving AWSA out of the History.

The last two volumes, written by Ida Husted Harper after the deaths of both Anthony and Stanton, are primarily a record of the conservative NAWSA, the organization formed by merging NWSA and AWSA in 1890 and their work for the passage of state amendments and, eventually, passage of a federal amendment to the Constitution in 1919. Harper, who was quite conservative, scarcely mentions the work of the radical suffragists led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns.

Volume I was completed and published in 1881. Anthony, who was, as usual, in charge of the business end of the venture, had difficulty finding a publisher. She apparently approached publishers with the Preface, Introduction and early chapters. In 1876 after taking them to Appletons she wrote in her diary, “It now seems probably – almost sure-that The Appleton’s will publish our History - I took them over Preface – Introduction – and first 6 or 8 chapters – and they think it will make a very interesting book. (Ann Gordon, Editor. The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony. Volume III. Page 273) Anthony thought, at this time, that the book would be a single volume but as the History became longer and more expensive, Appletons pled hard times and refused to publish the book.

In 1878 a few early chapters were published in Gage’s newspaper The National Citizen and Ballot Box.

The first editions of volumes I and II were published by Fowler and Wells, a slightly off-beat publishing house best known for their publications on phrenology. Volume I is dated 1881 and Volume II is dated 1882. True first editions of the History from Fowler and Wells are quite uncommon. Anthony later bought the plates and republished the first two volumes along with Volume III. Volumes I and II with Anthony as publisher are frequently mistaken for first editions.

Anthony did publish the first editions of volumes III and IV. Volume III appeared in 1886 and Volume IV in 1902.

In fact, Anthony wound up underwriting the first four volumes. Gage and Stanton who originally held the rights to the books along with Anthony sold their rights to Anthony when volume III was published. The first two volumes had proved to be extremely expensive and prospects of a profit were dim. Anthony spent $20,000 to reprint Volumes I and II plus Volume III. They were published in leather at $19.50 a set and in cloth at $15 a set. These prices, according to Anthony, made a large sale impossible. Fortunately a bequest of $25,000 enabled her to pay off the debt incurred.

The original bindings I’ve seen on the books published by Anthony are brown cloth with blind stamped rules and a decorative device on the front cover, or tan calf with two spine labels, one black and one red. The title and authors are on the spine only. The imprint is Susan B. Anthony/Rochester, N. Y.: Charles Mann/London: 25 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden./Paris: G. Fischbacher, 33 Rue De Seine/1887.

Anthony personally distributed 1,000 copies to libraries in Europe and the United States and gave sets to Congressmen and other “prominent” persons. Many of the latter volumes are inscribed by Anthony. In the four years following the publication of Volume IV, the Anthony household in Rochester, which included her sister Mary and, often, a housekeeper and/or a typist spent much of their time packing and mailing the first four volumes.

Volumes V and VI, written and published after Anthony’s death in 1922 by Harper, cover the last phase of the suffrage movement, the period from 1901 through 1919, as well as the formation of The League of Women Voters, the period following passage of the 19th Amendment, and the international women’s movement. Harper covers the conservative NAWSA’s role with much emphasis on its leader Carrie Chapman Catt but scarcely mentions the efforts of younger and more militant women who campaigned with parades and public displays in Washington and were jailed, force fed, and otherwise humiliated and maltreated. The National American Woman Suffrage Association is listed as publisher of both volumes.

Anthony left the plates for Volumes I through IV as well as the remaining books to the NAWSA which continued to sell them.

Facsimile copies of The History are usually available from the Ayer Company. To assemble a full set of true first editions is daunting. I’ve still working on it. Since Anthony inscribed many of the copies she gave away, inscribed editions, though pricey, almost seem easier come by than are first editions of the Fowler and Wells editions. Because of the books’ size, first and early editions are often in poor condition and many of those that do turn up are library copies. Even these are desirable, however, for their content.

Stanton and Anthony deserve an enormous amount of credit for their monumental undertaking. The books have omissions and occasional errors, and their length and exhaustive coverage of the movement make them exhausting reads, but, as reference works on one of the most important social movements of the last 150 years, they are invaluable.

References

Barry, Kathleen. Susan B. Anthony A Biography. NY: New York University Press, (1988)

Gordon, Ann B., Editor. The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Volume III. National Protection for National Citizens 1873 to 1880. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, (2003).

Griffith, Elizabeth. In Her Own Right The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. NY: Oxford University Press, (1984).

Harper, Ida Husted. History of Woman Suffrage Volumes V, VI. Salem, New Hampshire: Ayer Publishing, 1985. Facsimile edition.

Harper, Ida Husted. The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony Volume II. Salem, New Hampshire: Ayer Publishing, 1998. Facsimile edition.

Huth, Mary. Susan B. Anthony as Author and Publisher. An unpublished talk at the Susan B. Anthony House.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady; Anthony, Susan B.; Gage, Matilda Joslin. History of Woman Suffrage. Volumes I, II, III. Salem, New Hampshire: Ayer Publishing, 1985. Facsimile edition.

Martha Kelly is principal of Gutenberg Books, an open shop in Rochester NY, and specializes in women’s suffrage topics. More information is available at http://www.gutenbergbooks.com.

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