Centre College’s Sara Egge, assistant professor of history, recently published a book titled “Women Suffrage and Citizenship in the Midwest, 1870-1920” that provides evidence of the importance of women in creating and shaping public attitudes in the American heartland.
The idea for the book came to Egge when she was an undergraduate student at North Dakota State University.
“During my senior year, I took an independent study on the topic of rural women and political activism, focusing particularly on the women’s suffrage movement,” Egge said. “As I read widely, I was struck by the absence of a book on rural women’s involvement with women suffrage in the Midwest. Most scholars assumed that Midwestern women did not engage with women suffrage, believing that these rural women were ignorant or uninterested.”
This concept seemed shortsighted to Egge, and she decided to explore and research the topic more in graduate school at Iowa State University.
“I was delighted to find that my hunch was correct—that there was ample evidence that Midwestern women cared a great deal about woman suffrage in particular and gaining political equality in general,” she added.
Egge’s book digs deep into the issue and examines this topic in the Midwest from 1870 to 1920.
“My book is not just about women suffrage,” she said. “I define the elements of Midwestern political culture—ethnicity, gender and sociability, and religion—to showcase how Midwestern Yankee suffragists came up with the civic responsibility argument.
“I also show how Midwestern women created political identities for themselves through collective organizations and public services,” she continued. “I analyze the contributions women made to their communities through ladies’ aid societies, federated women’s clubs, temperance unions, neighborhood clubs and auxiliaries to fraternal organizations.”
This particular topic is important to Egge not just because of the lack of scholarship on women suffrage in the Midwest but because of the scholarly assumption that there was hardly any activity or support for women suffrage among Midwesterners.
“Those scholarly assumptions come from ideas that many people have about the Midwest,” she added. “The bias is usually that the Midwest is ‘fly-over country,’ that ‘nothing happens there and that the residents of the Midwest are ‘backwards’ or ‘ignorant.’ I wanted to challenge scholars who were writing contemporary ideas about the Midwest onto the past.”
Originally from the Midwest, Egge has a personal connection to the region. Growing up in South Dakota, and later attending graduate school in Iowa, sparked her interest to learn more about the region she’s lived in.
“The topic is also important, because it investigates citizenship,” Egge said. “Most people believe that citizenship was (and continues to be) a fixed status, but my book shatters that assumption.
“I discovered how easily ideas of citizenship could change, and those changes had nothing to do with legal or political definitions,” she concluded. “In fact, race, gender, age or ethnicity often were the determining factors of an individual’s citizenship status, not necessarily whether or not they were born in the U.S. or had completed the naturalization process.”
by Kerry Steinhofer
March 14, 2018