To commemorate the upcoming centennial of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote on Aug. 26, 1920, the League of Women Voters–Berkeley Heights, New Providence and Summit have put together a history of American feminism through song. The book, which LWV–BHNPS believes is the first of its kind, is available on Amazon.
League members worked with local high school and college interns to collect the songs, find historical photographs, and gather information about how the songs came to be and where they were sung. “Songs of the Suffragists: Lyrics of American Feminism from 1850 to 2020” is the culmination of all their work.
“We wanted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which will be celebrated this August,” Laura Engelhardt, one of the book’s authors, told LocalSource on May 21. “The ratification of the 19th Amendment gave women the ability to participate in our democracy and was a critical step forward for women’s rights in our country. So, the impetus behind publishing the book was the upcoming centennial.
“We chose to write this kind of book — a relatively short overview of the American feminist movement — to better enable local historical societies, women’s clubs and book groups to celebrate the centennial through programming. We hope our book will inspire people to keep striving to make our nation, and our world, a more equal place.”
LWV-BHNPS President Susan Ferris discussed the great amount of work that went into creating this 66-page book.
“It took two years to put this book together,” Ferris said on May 15. “We came up with the idea spring of 2018; two interns that were students from local high schools worked with us to start the original edition of the book. We decided to expand the book, and we’ve been working for the past two years to get that done.
“We wanted to come up with something that would celebrate the 19th Amendment and the centennial,” Ferris continued. “We wanted to use songs of the suffragists, which tell the story of the suffragists’ movement. We picked the songs to highlight each era of the movement. It’s the history of the suffragists movement as told through songs.”
For example, lyricists described a feminist revolution when they wrote about bloomers in the 1851 song “The Bloomer’s Complaint.” The link between clothing, freedom and feminism is carried into the modern era with a line about miniskirts and hot pants in the 1970s Loretta Lynn song “The Pill” and a discussion of headscarves in Mona Haydar’s 2017 song “Hijabi.” From the need for political freedom in the 1881 song “Shall Women Vote?” to the need for economic freedom in the 2007 song “Woman,” these lyrics reflect a cultural movement toward women’s equality.
Citing more than 80 sources and including more than 40 images, “Songs of the Suffragists” narrates the history of American feminism from the 19th century through the modern era. Each chapter includes an excerpt of song lyrics from the relevant period, along with well-researched commentary regarding the song and the woman’s movement at that time.
The book provides an ideal foundation for book club programming around the centennial, and Engelhardt is even creating a video to provide additional information and questions to guide book groups.
“The book is a series of chapters that revolves around the songs,” Ferris said. “Each chapter takes on one song; in the chapter is a narrative explaining the song — a better understanding of women’s rights through music and narrative with a lot of great pictures. The narrative describes what was going on at the time of the song.
“This book was researched with Rutgers Law clinic with the help of three law students at the Intellectual Property Law Clinic at Rutgers University for over a year,” she continued. “The copyright, guidance and advice needed for the book was done. They did a lot of free work for us. They were able to verify about the artwork and the music and cleared the copyright for us. Participating in the making of the book were two interns in the spring of 2018 and two interns in the spring of 2019. There were also three LWV members who were involved.”
Available on Amazon since March, this colorful book showcases more than 20 songs written between 1850 and 2020, discussing the cultural and historical significance of each.
According to Ferris, the book has been doing well on Amazon, and they are looking to branch out to other platforms.
“The book is available on Amazon for $23.45,” Ferris said. “We’re planning a Kindle edition, but it’ll be at a lesser price. That isn’t finished yet and I don’t know how many copies have been sold so far. There is a virtual convention planned for the end of June.”
While the book’s authors had been hoping to do appearances in person, they are going virtual, due to COVID-19. Hamilton College is even helping the league organize a virtual book tour.
“I’m quite proud of the book,” Engelhardt said. “While well-researched, it’s accessible to a general audience. We provide a broad overview of the feminist movement in our country by tying different historical events to songs of the era. We also include a lot of intriguing facts.
“For example, in 1920, it was a mother’s letter to her son that compelled him to change his mind on women’s suffrage. Harry Burn’s was the deciding vote in Tennessee, which was the final state needed for ratification. Without the influence of women like Febb Burn, women would never have gained the right to vote,” she continued. “Another fun fact is that, in the 1970s, Helen Reddy’s husband responded to a Capitol Records executive who said, ‘This women’s lib crap is going to kill her,’ by peeing on the man’s desk. Reddy’s song ‘I Am Woman’ is now a classic feminist anthem.”
Engelhardt believes this book is a staple for women.
“In 2020, it’s no longer culturally acceptable to express the opinion that women are inferior to men and don’t have the mental capacity to vote,” Engelhardt said. “In 1920, that was a perfectly reasonable view to hold. Achieving political equality with men was one huge step forward towards gender equality. By looking through this book, you can see the tremendous progress we’ve made over the past 170 years.
“Of course, there is still work for us to do, but we should celebrate the accomplishments of the activists and ordinary people who worked to transform our society for the better,” Engelhardt continued. “‘Songs of the Suffragists’ celebrates the political movement for gender equality by highlighting the songs that helped change our culture. Sometimes people talk about the ‘culture wars’ of the last few decades as if they aren’t all that important. The truth is those culture wars have been critical to creating enduring change. I hope that our book will inspire people to create modern ‘songs of the suffragists’ to continue to transform our society into a more equal one.”
Ferris echoed the same sentiment.
“This book is to understand the history of women’s rights in the U.S. Where we’ve been, where we are now, and hopefully where we’re going,” Ferris said.