Public Faces, Secret Lives

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It comes out in May 2022.

I have been known to joke that historical women were invented in the 1960s – before that, only Cleopatra, the Virgin Mary, Joan of Arc and Elizabeth I existed (obviously none outside of the European context). More recently I have added that queer people were invented in the 21st century.

I was joking, but … only because there’s an element of truth. Straight white men rule history, amiright?

This book, then, is a massively important addition to the history of the fight for suffrage.

I should point out that although I have a fairly substantial library of suffrage books, they are all either Australian or British. My knowledge of the American experience is limited to the film Iron Angels, and the magnificent “Bad Romance” spoof video clip. I do not, therefore, know a lot about the private lives of the main characters like Susan B. Anthony, who aren’t covered here in any detail because it’s been done elsewhere. It’s interesting therefore to get the focus on women who were, apparently, lesser lights – or who have become such as the history of the period has been presented.

I’m also not an expert on queer history, so I don’t know whether Rouse’s particular definition is standard or expansive. Here, queer is outlined as “individuals who transgressed normative notions of gender and sexuality… suffragists who were not strictly heterosexual or cisgender” (p2). There’s a nice point about how language changes and that words we might use to describe relationships today, for instance, may not have been available to or appropriate for people in the past.

The chapters follow general themes, or categories, allowing Rouse to explore different ways in which queerness was expressed – and fought against, in some instances. For example, in the chapter “Mannish Women and Feminine Men”, she examines how some suffragists fought against the derisive stereotype of ‘mannish women’ by insisting that suffragists perform femininity to a signifiant degree – to the detriment of gender non-conforming individuals and those women who advocated less restrictive dress. Other chapters include “Queering Domesticity” and “Queering Family” – so many of these women ended up setting up house together, and whether they were in physically romantic relationships can often not be conclusively determined, but they still spent their lives together! There’s also “Queering Transatlantic Alliances”, “Queering Space” and “Queering Death”, so it covers the entire gamut of suffragist lives.

There’s a really nice intersectionalism at work here, too, with commentary on how “queer white suffragists… helped maintain a system of white supremacy by policing access to the vote” (p63), for example. There are definitely black and First Nations people mentioned in the book, but I suspect one problem of not being familiar with the American history here is that I didn’t automatically recognise the name of any of the suffragists – let alone recognise whether they were white or not. Still, Rouse did point it out, and made note of the times when white suffragists, for instance, either tried to block black women from marching in demonstrations or told them to go to the back of the line. There’s mention, too, of class – something that’s often lacking in standard stories of the British fight for suffrage, if it focuses on Emmeline and Charitable Pankhurst and forgets Sylvia.

I’m really glad this book exists. It’s a really great look at the American fight for women’s suffrage in general (as far as I can tell), as well as presenting a dimension that is much-needed across all history.

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