Suffrage, Stories, and Civics

March 2021

As an elementary school student, I delighted in reading a series of orange-bound biographies about historically significant women. There were volumes about men, too, but I only turned to those after having read all of the ones about women. My memory is that these books focused on the childhoods of people like Martha Washington, Betsy Ross, and Abigail Adams. Perhaps I unconsciously understood something about the illumination of the past offered by good biography, which at its heart centers on stories about people. Decades later, as a professional historian, narratives of people continue to simultaneously spark my imagination and engage my intellect. I credit those biographies with drawing me towards history, especially as told through the stories of individuals.

9781941813249.jpgMy historian husband also read many of the same orange-bound biographies as an elementary student. Despite our diligent efforts, we were never able to locate copies of these tomes to purchase for our children. However, the connection between the tales of their ancestors—those connected by blood and those connected by history—have, I hope, fostered in them an understanding of why voting and civic engagement are so important. The four Birzers over eighteen years of age went to the polls together on 3 November 2020. Appropriately enough, our local elections are held in the community library. The ease with which all four of us, including the two women in our group (myself and my daughter), cast our votes could lead even a professional historian to forget the long-fought and hard-won battles that made our ability to do so a reality.

As the new Editor-in-Chief and Director of the South Dakota Historical Society Press, I’ve joyfully spent some time reading selections from the Press’s impressive booklist. Among my favorites are two books aimed at different age groups by Angelica Shirley Carpenter. Some of the same characters appear in both, which is a great way to build on young readers’ natural interest in captivating true stories. The Voice of Liberty is an illustrated children’s book that tells the story of the tenacious women of the New York Woman Suffrage Association, who found an ingenious way to take part in the unveiling ceremony for the Statue of Liberty, an event from which women had been barred. Matilda Joslyn Gage, whose adult children lived in and near Aberdeen, South Dakota, loudly proclaimed the irony of having a female figure represent liberty in a country where women were not allowed to vote. I won’t spoil the story by giving too much away, but I will leave you with one hint: it involves a cattle barge.

9781941813348.jpgThe second book, aimed at middle-school and high-school readers, is a biography of Gage. Its title, Born Criminal, refers to Gage’s oft-repeated statement when arrested for registering to vote in 1893. Gage theorized that based upon their association with original sin due to Eve’s action in succumbing to temptation in the Garden of Eden, women’s legal status as lifelong dependents meant they were criminals from birth. This biography, like my beloved orange-bound ones, offers a window into history, in this case a movement that took over seventy years to reach its goal of suffrage for women. The struggles of Gage and her colleagues for something as innocuous as the right to vote is hard to wrap our twenty-first century heads around.

The celebrations marking the one hundredth anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, granting women the right to vote, have reminded us that many stories like that of Matilda Joslyn Gage have yet to be told. The South Dakota Historical Society Foundation’s “Her Voice. Her Vote.” campaign has brought a number of those stories to light, as have the SDHS Press’s suffrage-oriented titles for general readers: Equality at the Ballot Box, edited by Molly Rozum and Lori Ann Lahlum, and a special issue of South Dakota History from Fall 2020. There are now more resources than ever before to stimulate children’s historical imaginations. The orange-bound historical biographies that I so loved now have made way for a myriad of fine books for children. No matter one’s age or reading level, we must all remember the sacrifices made by ordinary individuals to ensure, to quote the Preamble to the United States Constitution,“the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

—Dedra McDonald Birzer


Image at top is a newspaper clipping from Matilda Joslyn Gage’s scrapbook featuring prominent suffrage leaders. The scrapbook is now housed at the Library of Congress.