Book Discovery: Gilded Suffragists by Johanna Neuman
In the early twentieth century over two hundred of New York's most glamorous socialites joined the suffrage movement. Their names—Astor, Belmont, Rockefeller, Tiffany, Vanderbilt, Whitney and the like—carried enormous public value. These women were the media darlings of their day because of the extravagance of their costume balls and the opulence of the French couture clothes, and they leveraged their social celebrity for political power, turning women's right to vote into a fashionable cause.
Although they were dismissed by critics as bored socialites “trying on suffrage as they might the latest couture designs from Paris,” these gilded suffragists were at the epicenter of the great reforms known collectively as the Progressive Era. From championing education for women, to pursuing careers, and advocating for the end of marriage, these women were engaged with the swirl of change that swept through the streets of New York City.
Johanna Neuman restores these women to their rightful place in the story of women’s suffrage. Understanding the need for popular approval for any social change, these socialites used their wealth, power, social connections and style to excite mainstream interest and to diffuse resistance to the cause. In the end, as Neuman says, when change was in the air, these women helped push women’s suffrage over the finish line.
Reviews and What Readers Say
" Johanna Neuman's Gilded Suffragists is a brilliant—and beautifully written—study of the campaign for women’s right to vote. Neuman deftly illuminates "the upstairs long missing from women's history," recovering for the ages the contribution of elite society women to the movement. Suffrage was a team sport, a collective effort by women of all classes, but Neuman shows that the gilded suffragists' contributions came at a critical moment to push Votes for Women over the finish line. Their money (and their ability to extract contributions from others) was crucial; but perhaps most importantly, they leveraged their social power to make suffrage a popular, mainstream cause. That they have been lost to history is no accident. Despite having championed a winning cause, these doyennes of New York society lost in the internecine battle over the movement's legacy in the years that followed as labor groups and middle class activists questioned their motives and excised their efforts from the historical record. In her own time, Alva Belmont lamented that suffrage leaders had "forgotten who is responsible for this victory. But I don't care. I shall go down in history." One hundred years later, thanks to Neuman, the legions of gilded suffragists who worked for the cause have finally had their say."
― Susan M. Perlman, Amazon Client, Verified Purchase
“In the superb 2004 HBO film ‘Iron Jawed Angels’, Molly Parker plays Mrs Emily Leighton, the wife of Senator Tom Leighton. When the film begins Emily, in line with the doctrine of the separate spheres, regards politics as her husband’s realm and contents herself with supporting him and bringing up their two daughters. Gradually, though, she takes more of an interest in the suffragist cause. At first her support is financial but gradually she becomes more radical and more active, even joining those women who picketed Wilson’s White House and as a consequence is imprisoned, and goes on hunger strike.The character of Emily Leighton is fictional but Johanna Neuman’s book ‘Gilded Suffragists’, subtitled ‘The New York Socialites who fought for women’s right to vote’ tells the actual story of those upper class women who lent their support, albeit in much less dramatic ways than Emily, to the campaign for votes for women, which eventually triumphed when women gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1920, as a result of the 19th Amendment.According to Neuman it was over 200 socialites, including “women named Astor, Belmont, Harriman, Mackay, Rockefeller, Tiffany, Vanderbilt, and Whitney” who made a decisive contribution to that constitutional change when, in 1908, they reanimated the suffrage cause by exploiting their social status to ‘de-toxify’ and normalize it.This celebrity endorsement was, it is claimed, so potent - ultimately helping to “push women’s suffrage over the finish line” - because these women had the ear of the media and because their glamour undermined the anti-suffragist taunt that women who demanded their rights were somehow ‘unfeminine’ and threatened the emasculation of men."
― John Plowright, Amazon Client, Verified Purchase
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Johanna Neuman is a writer, historian and scholar-in-residence at American University in Washington, D.C. A former journalist, she covered the White House, Congress and the State Department for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times' Washington Bureau. In her books, she chronicles the personal costs of social change. Lights, Camera, War, her first non-fiction book, examined media technologies from the printing press to the Internet, looking at the tumultuous changes these new media inventions caused in diplomacy communication. Her upcoming book, Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women's Right to Vote, tells the fascinating story of more than two hundred New York social figures who joined the women’s suffrage movement in the 1910s. Chronicled by a vibrant newspaper industry for their extravagant lifestyles, they became the media darlings of their day. And when these glamorous socialites embraced the suffrage campaign, they electrified public interest, normalizing the idea that women deserved to vote. Cloaked in the allure of fashion, they leveraged their class status for political power, contributing the buzz of a celebrity endorsement to a cause said to have descended into the doldrums. Gilded Suffragists excavates the identities of these women – until now hidden behind the label of Mrs. Somebody Else – and describes their rivalries for power within the suffrage movement, the debate over chivalry that complicated their mission after the sinking of the Titanic and their political conflicts during the First World War. These wives and daughters of the titans of American capitalism – Astors, Belmonts, Harrimans, Vanderbilts – were not immune to the temper of their times. From riding bicycles to pursuing careers, advocating an end to marriage to an embrace of pacifism – these women were part of the swirl of change known as modernity that was sweeping through New York’s Greenwich Village. Many paid a personal price for their activism, estranged from husbands or parents in families gilded by capitalistic wealth. Others attained great professional stature in archeology, art, literature and diplomacy. Their stories, and those of members of the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage who supported them, give the book a narrative flavor rare in historical accounts of the period. Gilded Suffragists is due out September 5, 2017 from New York University Press.