A book by Claude D. Pottinger Associate Professor of History Sara Egge, Woman Suffrage and Citizenship in the Midwest (University of Iowa Press, 2018), has received two prestigious awards: the Gita Chaudhuri Prize from the Western Association of Women Historians (WAWH) and the Benjamin Shambaugh Award from the State Historical Society of Iowa for the best book about Iowa history.
The Gita Chaudhuri Prize, awarded annually, recognizes the best monograph published by a WAWH member about the history of women in rural environments, from any era and any place in the world. The WAWH was founded to promote the interests of women historians both in academic settings and in the field of history generally.
The annual Shambaugh Award honors Benjamin Shambaugh, who led the State Historical Society of Iowa for decades during the early 20th century.
Egge’s interest in woman’s suffrage in small midwestern communities began while an undergraduate at North Dakota State University.
“I had taken a course on women’s history, and we learned all about the woman suffrage movement,” Egge says. “I was struck, however, that there was no scholarship on how rural women engaged with the cause. Most scholars believed that woman suffrage occurred among urban dwellers, and I found the absence of any mention of women on farms and in rural places quite telling.”
Woman Suffrage and Citizenship in the Midwest focuses on three midwestern communities: Clay County, Iowa; Lyon County, Minnesota; and Yankton County, South Dakota.
Reviewer Tom Morain wrote in the Des Moines Register (April 5, 2019), “Moving down from the debate at the national level, Egge chose to focus on ‘Yankee women’ of the Midwest, primarily middle-class Protestants with New England roots in towns and small cities. These women were a primary force in the creation and support of community institutions like schools, churches and libraries. Adding in their influence as a dominant component in public issues like prohibition, these women established their claim to full citizenship based on their records of public service.”
By contrast, woman suffrage at the national level, led by the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), focused its demands on the right to vote as an equal right of citizens, an argument that flew in the face of established gender norms of the era.
But the issue of temperance also put rural suffragists at odds with their national counterparts.
“Most rural midwestern suffragists came to support woman suffrage through the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and its advocacy of temperance,” Egge says. “Many women were members of both the WCTU and their local or state suffrage association, and they explicitly said that they wanted to vote so that they could institute prohibition in places where people could drink or keep prohibition in place in localities where it already existed.
“By the late nineteenth century, however, NAWSA’s leaders like Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard Shaw began to realize that woman suffrage had to be a single issue, one that was not connected to other causes or reforms,” she continues. “For many midwestern suffragists, this was asking too much. They could not separate their activisms when they were one and the same.”
In South Dakota, one of the states in Egge’s study, NAWSA blacklisted the state suffrage association, the South Dakota Equal Franchise League (SDEFL), when its leaders refused to break their ties with the temperance organization. Instead, the NAWSA wrote to local leaders and requested that they correspond only with them, effectively ending any work the SDEFL could undertake on behalf of woman suffrage in that state.
In addition, Egge explains, midwestern suffragists were challenging NAWSA’s growing animosity toward immigrants. In many midwestern states, as well as about half of all states in the United States, non-naturalized citizens could vote. Local activists called out NAWSA for ignoring immigrants during campaigns for woman suffrage amendments, even though these immigrants were a key voting constituency in many midwestern places. While local suffragists counted immigrants as neighbors, friends and voters whom they could persuade to support woman suffrage, NAWSA saw them as a bloc of voters incapable of ever favoring the cause.
Egge’s latest project is a new book about the naturalization process.
“Naturalization was a fraught and often misunderstood process,” Egge says. “Before 1906, it was regulated by state and local courts, which made enforcement irregular and weak. The National Archives estimates that 25 percent of all immigrants listed in the United States census between 1890 and 1930 never became citizens. I am curious to understand the implications of these inconsistencies in the naturalization process, especially considering that for a forty-year period, one in four immigrants did not complete it.
“Not only do I want to explore what local, state and federal officials thought of this inconsistency but I want to examine what the immigrants themselves believed about becoming citizens of the United States,” she continues. “What was it like to live their entire lives without ever becoming full citizens in the United States? In many states, foreign-born men could vote with ‘alien suffrage’—also known as declarant voting. The political participation of these immigrants is also curious. Many scholars who study citizenship note the blatant inconsistencies and ambiguities that define citizenship. Far from a clear standard, this system created significant opportunities for non-citizens to exercise rights while denying birthright citizens those very same rights.”
Egge’s appreciation for these prestigious awards extends to her classwork and students.
“I’m grateful for these awards, as they recognize all the hard work that faculty like me put into our research. But I also had a number of student researchers who contributed to this work, and the students who have taken my course, Citizenship and Belonging, have shaped my thinking in profound ways. These awards are for them, too.”
by Cindy Long
October 23, 2019