Literary Hill: Interview with Shirley Marshall

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A Radical Suffragist in Washington, DC: An Inside Story of the National Women’s Party Author: Shirley M. Marshall

For this month’s column, I interviewed Shirley Marshall, author of “A Radical Suffragist in Washington, DC,” a timely book that peers into the personal letters of Elizabeth Kalb, one of many players in the long and contentious fight to gain women the right to vote. Marshall’s book brings to visibility what it takes to make political and democratic change, even the sort of change that we might now take for granted.

Literary Hill: Much of this book is devoted to the letters of Elizabeth Kalb and her experience volunteering in DC for the National Women’s Party. Why did you choose to focus on Elizabeth Kalb and her letters in your retelling of the history of women’s suffrage activism in this era?

Shirley Marshall: To understand the history, we need to understand the activists. What was their work? Why defy society’s norms and risk imprisonment? Elizabeth’s letters bring to life how physically and emotionally challenging was the work – and why she kept going. In addition, she brings to life other activists, their personalities and struggles.

I find her story, while in details unique to a time and place, still relevant today. A young adult comes to DC to support a political cause. Through her eyes, we see history not as preordained but as a constant struggle until final and often narrow success.

LH: Alice Paul, the leader of the National Women’s Party in this era, is another figure who looms large in this book. Do you have a favorite story about Alice Paul of her time in DC?

SM: While Elizabeth shares some great stories about her boss, to me a later incident reflects Paul’s complex legacy.

Unlike most suffrage leaders, Paul was singularly and solely focused on women gaining legal rights. After ratification, a large delegation appealed for Paul’s help. They knew that Southern Black women could not access this new right. Of Paul’s refusal to help, Mary Church Terrell later said, “Alice Paul had displayed the most painful lack of tact I had ever seen …”

But for Paul, once voting rights were granted then her job was done. And this tight focus, a harsh drawing of lines, is how she had leveraged a small membership and limited funds to great impact. A single-minded, absolute commitment to one cause at a time. First to the suffrage amendment and then to the Equal Rights Amendment.

LH: What might today’s women’s rights activists take from the stories you share in this history of the fight for women’s suffrage?

SM: First, everyone can contribute and each must be valued. From political strategizing to feeding the workers, all have roles. Second, have a clear and measurable ask – or demand. Keep focused on a specific change. And third, make sure you are not leaving people out. In the fight for women’s suffrage, some people got pushed aside or ignored. Either in the moment or when your objective is achieved, work to ensure all affected voices are heard.

LH: Thank you for this timely and important read, Shirley!

Royal Audience: 70 Years, 13 Presidents–One Queen’s Special Relationship with America. Author:
David Charter

June Reviews

“A Radical Suffragist in Washington, DC: An Inside Story of the National Women’s Party.” Shirley M. Marshall’s book bridges local and national history through the letters of Elizabeth Kalb, a women’s rights activist and an employee of the National Women’s Party, a frontline organization in the fight for women’s suffrage. World War I, the bustle of Capitol Hill, historic Lafayette Square and tempestuous protests provide a rich background, as this herstory tackles the long-game political strategies and resilience necessary to secure women’s right to the vote. Kalb’s letters, primarily to her mother, provide incisive glimpses into life as a political radical in the early 20th century, illuminating the contributions of countless groups and people whose tireless efforts led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

“Royal Audience: 70 Years, 13 Presidents – One Queen’s Special Relationship with America.” David Charter’s latest highlights Queen Elizabeth II’s “special relationship” with America and its leaders. Throughout her 70 years of enigmatic rule, Elizabeth cultivated extraordinary personal connections with 13 US presidents, from her first meeting with Truman, sharing scones with Eisenhower, horseback riding with Reagan and finding kinship with the Bushes and the Obamas. Readers will enjoy stories of Jackie Kennedy’s indecorous gossip (following an awkward dinner with the monarch), the Queen Mother’s headline-making kiss on the cheek from Jimmy Carter and numerous behind-the-scenes examples of her steadfast duty and service.

“Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force That Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War.” Written by Capitol Hill resident and Smithsonian historian Jon Grinspan, this history of the Wide Awakes is sure to please those who enjoy Civil War-era history or histories of grassroots activism. The Wide Awakes defended anti-slavery stumpers from attack in the initial years of the 1860 presidential campaign. As the movement grew to include hundreds of young working-class white and Black men (and some women ‒ gasp!), Grinspan details how the Wide Awakes became one of the most interesting political movements in American history. A savvy history that examines compelling issues: majority vs. mob rule, what it means to defend free speech and the precarious relationship between speech and action in American democracy.

Celebrate the “New” Folger: Ribbon-Cutting. On Friday, June 21, the Folger will host a reopening ceremony for its renovated interior and exhibits. Leaders from the Folger and local VIPs will attend the ribbon-cutting, scheduled for 10 a.m.

Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force That Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War. Aurthor: Jon Grinspan. Photo: Elizabeth Dranitzke

Visitors will now be treated to the Quill & Crumb cafe and a 12,000-square-foot wing with never-before-seen artifacts. View rare books, manuscripts and art, as well as interactive experiences such as a 20-foot vault that displays 82 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio (the largest collection in the world); a copy of Cicero with Henry VIII’s schoolboy inscription, “Thys Boke Is Myne Prince Henry”; a proclamation on pirates from Queen Elizabeth I; and a replica of a 17th-century printing press like one used to produce the First Folio.

After June 21, it will be free to visit the Folger. An advance reservation ticket is recommended, with a sliding scale/suggested donation of $15. For more info or tickets, please visit www.folger.edu.

Michelle LaFrance is associate professor of English at George Mason University. She blogs about writing, her upcoming writing classes and writing retreats at www.writinglostriver.org