In other words, the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote.
But if you think you already know that story —Susan B. Anthony, Sojurner Truth, bloomers, women locking themselves to the fence in front of the White House, right? — then veteran journalists Ellen Goodman and Lynn Sherr are here to say you don’t.
“Everybody thinks they know some of the story,’’ Goodman says. “Oh, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, they had a convention in Seneca Falls and then we got the vote. But they do not know the story.”
The longtime friends host a new eight-episode podcast, “She Votes!”, which gives the listener a more complete picture of the long struggle, along with a cast of characters and events well-known in their day but mostly forgotten now.
For instance, most people are unaware that long before the 19th amendment, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for the crime of voting while female in Rochester, New York, in 1872. She was found guilty in a trial in 1873.
“She remains a convicted felon on the books to this day,” says Sherr, who has written a play about the trial, along with the book “Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words.” (EDITOR’S NOTE: A few hours after this piece was posted, President Donald Trump said he was sign an order granting Anthony a full pardon.)
Forgotten history and slow progress
You might remember Goodman for her Pulitzer Prize-winning columns for the Boston Globe. Sherr won a Peabody, among other honors, for her work as an ABC correspondent. As prominent journalists covering feminism’s Second Wave, they remember only too well the sexism women journalists endured in the 1970s, when both began their careers.
Goodman began her career at Newsweek at a time when women could be researchers, but not reporters. She started at the news magazine with a male friend from college; only she had to work for him. Men could have a byline; women were support staff.
Sherr’s early career was defined by similar limitations. Women’s voices were not deemed authoritative enough to be heard on air, giving the news.
For many younger readers and listeners, just learning about the sexism those two endured would be important revelations about the recent history of women’s rights. But both Goodman and Sherr want people to know the deeper details of the fight for women’s suffrage and to consider how it connects with the protests and struggles of today’s movements such as #BlackLivesMatter.
Storyboard talked to these two master storytellers about the fuller history they wanted to explore, the pioneering characters they wanted to highlight and the challenges of taking a medium that was new for both of them.
Our conversation is edited for length and clarity.
What about the story of the 19th Amendment did you think was untold?
Sherr: It’s the impact, the personalized part of it and the relevance to today that was so important to us. And the arrest, trial and conviction of Susan B. Anthony for voting illegally (in the 1872 presidential election in her home state of New York, where only men were allowed to vote).
What Susan B. Anthony was saying was I’m a citizen. Citizens had the right to vote according to the 14th Amendment, which granted the rights of citizenship to freed slaves when it was passed in 1868. Now women argued that we’re citizens too. In response, the U.S. government took after her with fury and with vengeance.
It’s a real lesson in what the government can do when it wants to. It’s also a lesson that if women had got their way originally, if we had done universal suffrage, every citizen’s right to vote, we might not have had Jim Crow. We wouldn’t have had all these stupid laws, keeping various groups from voting.
What lessons do you want us to draw from this that relate struggles now, such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo?
Goodman: First of all, everybody has the idea that women getting the vote was inevitable. But it was not inevitable. The other thing that is so extraordinary when you get into this story is the persistence. Nevertheless, they persisted! Those are lessons for all of the social activism going on now. One, change is not inevitable. And two, persist. Eventually one hopes that your cause, if it’s just, will prevail.
In terms of relevance to the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, both of those arise from issues — sexual abuse, misuse of power — that had been around for a long, long time. Police abuse is not new, but the sense of it and the availability of some new resources in journalism — everybody with a cell phone camera can be a journalist — those things all have created the moment.
We have two things for that have been festering for a long time in our culture, and for which there now was a moment. That’s part of what we learned also in the story of suffrage.
Sherr: One of the big issues in getting suffrage passed was the press. It was getting attention to suffrage — not in a manner of ridicule, but as a news event that the suffragists worked on and was now making the front page. This was a big deal for suffrage: The suffragists learned how to use the press.
I think the Black Lives Matter people and the Me Too movement have been extraordinary at understanding what makes a good story. The suffragists by the early 1900s had finally figured out what made a good story. That wasn’t the only thing, but certainly it was helpful to getting to what Ellen just described as that “moment.” That moment when it really made a difference.
This story is history — not news. Talk for a minute about what it’s like for both of you, as news professionals, to switch to history.
Goodman: When you are a good journalist, you’re always trying to tell the backstory. People always say news is the first rough draft of history. We had the opportunity to tell not just the first draft of history, but the second and third. That was huge fun. We had a ball going through the archival material, hearing the sound and the speeches.
Sherr: Because we’re journalists and we both love history, we wanted to include the known figures — like Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth. But we also wanted to include some characters that the world might not know much about. It was great fun figuring out which of those minor characters should be major characters, or which characters from the suffrage movement should be known beyond that.
Can you give me an example?
Goodman: A person I fell in love with was a journalist, Alice Duer Miller, who wrote for the New York Tribune (1914-1917). She wrote in this wonderful style as a response to the news, which is something I always did.
Sherr: We should also say that a woman who is an expert on her, Mary Chapman from the University of British Columbia said that (Miller) was the Jon Stewart of her day, because she took the words of the politicians and threw them right back at them the way Stewart used to do at the beginning of each “Daily Show.”
I’m thinking Sarah Cooper right now.
Sherr: Yes, exactly. She would just skewer them with their own words. For instance, President Wilson’s vice president, Thomas Marshall, came out against the vote for women saying, “My wife was against suffrage and that settles it for me.” The vice president. Alice Duer Miller says: “My wife dislikes the income tax and so I cannot pay it. She thinks golf all interests lacks; now I never play it.”
The name of her column was, “Are Women People?” She did that because Woodrow Wilson used a reference to “the people” in all of his speeches: he would say “and the people this” and “the people that” and “we must do this for the people.” But then he would not come out for suffrage.
Ellen and I have a little routine we like to do, our favorite poem from Alice Duer Miller. It’s a little conversation between a little girl and her mom. It starts with a little girl, “Mother, what is a feminist?
Goodman: “A feminist my daughter …”
Sherr: “… is any woman now who cares
to think about her own affairs
as men don’t think she oughter.”
That’s Alice Duer Miller.
There are definitely people who look at the suffrage movement and see racism or, at the very least, women who were willing to sacrifice the rights of others so they could get their rights.
Goodman: There was a huge amount of that.
Sherr: The most unappealing part was the pure ugliness of white Southern women, mostly in the early 1900s, who worried that giving the vote to women would enable too many black women to vote and would cancel out the white women.
Goodman: And the white Southern men and the Southern politicians.
Sherr: That led some of the suffragists to say some things and do things that were politically expedient, but racist. The way they tried to get Southern states to ratify was to assure them that their votes would cancel out whatever black votes there were — essentially setting up Jim Crow for the future.
Goodman: It definitely is a dark cloud over the suffrage movement. There was a dark cloud over the 15th Amendment, too, when the white Congress gave the vote to Black men, but not to Black women or white women. That was also a moment when they threw women under the bus. One Black woman historian said, “If you understand the story …”
Sherr: “… of suffrage in all its complexity, you understand this country.” It’s Paula J. Giddings from Smith college. Amazing historian. One of the first African American women to deal with Black women in the suffrage movement.
Goodman: What’s equally true is that the story of suffrage, until relatively recently, did not include Black suffragists and the Asian suffragists. I mean, the largest minority group were African Americans, but the story left out people like Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell.
What audience are you trying to reach with this series?
Goodman: The largest audience for podcasts are younger people who are not familiar, as we said, with the richness of the story of suffrage or who thought suffrage was inevitable. At the same time we were very aware people who are older, who have not yet been introduced to the incredibly rich world of podcasts. So there is dual audience: One for the story itself that does listen to podcasts, and another for people who are perhaps more familiar with the story but not with the media.
Audio a very intimate medium. What did you have to change, if anything, in your storytelling style?
Sherr: I keep getting yelled at by the producer not to use my TV voice.
Goodman: It was a very different way of interviewing people. When you’re doing interviews for print, you can say anything: You’re not there, they’re not there. There’s also some wonderful richness in literally hearing somebody’s voice. We have voices focused on the day that suffrage actually passed by one vote in the Tennessee Legislature. We interview a descendant of the man who cast the deciding vote; that voice is quite delicious. It’s fun having an extra dimension — whether it’s music or it’s voices.
Sherr: Ellen made the leap seamlessly from being a print person — obviously she’s done plenty of television and radio interviews — but she made the leap to doing this just amazingly. She had to leap one way and I have to leap the other way, which is from being a TV reporter, an anchor, using my TV voice, to making it friendlier — making it just for the ear and knowing I didn’t have video. It is a different kind of writing. You’re writing for the ear. You have to explain things in a slightly different way.
One of the things is that you’re going for a little more emotional tug. There are little moments that you want that you would never put in a news story. For the episode we did on Susan B. Anthony, we went to the courthouse where she was tried and this lawyer comes along. He recognized me. That never would have made it into a TV story. Does it advance our story? I believe it does because this man was so entranced with Susan B. Anthony, and understood the value of her trial for the cases that he tries now and for the young people that he shows around the courthouse. There was a real connection.
How did it change how you shape and ask questions?
Sherr: You’re conscious that your question may be heard. You can’t just throw out a catch all-question like ‘talk about that thing you wrote about.’ You’ve got to have something that you’re willing to have on the air. Our questions have to be as interesting as their answers. Ellen and I have spent so many dinners together, parties together, time on the phone together, where we entertained each other by asking interesting questions — I think we’re trying to go for that. We’re trying to create an atmosphere where people want to listen in on our conversation with somebody.
Goodman: When we were interviewing someone, you have to follow what they say, because they may lead you into a whole different area than you were expecting to go. The need to listen as you ask — that is something I think every journalist has to know. You can’t just ask your questions; you have to actually be present, listen and be willing to follow where the person you’re interviewing wants to go.
Sherr: Could I add that in this time of COVID, the challenge is daunting but also amusing. For the very first few of our interviews, we went to Rochester and Seneca Falls. And thank goodness we got a lot of material for a couple of episodes. We did some interviews in studio. But for every other interview, I’m at my house in New York, Ellen’s at her house in Massachusetts. Our producer is in Brooklyn. The subject we’re interviewing could be on Mars.
Goodman: You have to create your own studio in your own closet.
Sherr: I’ve been building a giant pillow fort in my little space and I’ve got pillows all around me. That’s what, when I was in television, everyone did for me; suddenly I’m doing it for myself. So what? I can do this. Ellen can learn. That’s all baseline now.
On top of that, we have to create this warm and cozy and chummy atmosphere so that when we interview people, listeners don’t realize we’re hundreds of miles apart, sitting under blankets. Everyone has said to me that it sounds as if you two are just enjoying talking to each other, which is the point.
Are there other ways this project benefited from your friendship?
Sherr: When we came up with the concept for this we wanted to contextualize things. We wanted to be able to talk about the history. We wanted to talk about how it related to stuff we knew, and knew intimately, which is what we covered in the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and how the first and second waves (of feminism) came together. And then we wanted to be sure to relate it to today. We just recorded an episode where we talk about the Ferraro campaign that we both covered.
I somehow have a feeling that this is not going to be the only podcast series that you guys do.
Sherr: Funny you should say that. There is a proposal for something else that we’re looking into. Ellen has been saying how nice it is at this point in our lives to learn a new trick, to learn a new way of doing something. We’ve both done a lot of books and that’s all been great, but it’s quite a lot of fun to learn a new medium and make it work.
My 19-year-old granddaughter emailed me the other day. She had listened to Episode One. This is not a normally voluble young woman, but she went on and on about how she didn’t ever realize how important the right to vote was. She didn’t know Susan B, Anthony had gone through this and she can’t wait to talk to me about more stuff about the suffrage movement. Bingo! There it is.
Katherine Lanpher is a writer, editor and podcast host and producer based in New York.