Review: Marching with Aunt Susan (Susan B. Anthony and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage)

Marching with Aunt Susan: Susan B. Anthony and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage
Author: Claire Rudolph Murphy
Illustrator: Stacey Schuett
Peachtree Publishing
Ages 4-7

So why am I so thoroughly disappointed in this book? It comes down to a few choices made to erase Anthony’s racism in the supplemental materials included in the back of the book. 

One hundred years ago, the Nineteenth Amendment to the constitution was passed, technically granting all women the right to vote. Additionally, this year marks the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the constitution technically granting voting rights to African American men and other men of color.

This is also an election year. Coupled with all the anniversaries of historic voting rights wins, I have seen this book featured on a number of lists of must read books. Murphy was inspired to write this book after she found the diaries of 10-year-old Bessie Keith Pond. 

Bessie is a little girl who can’t understand why she cannot go hiking with her father and brothers. Her mother invites her to a tea where Susan B Anthony will be speaking instead. Bessie attends and becomes inspired to learn more about the movement to fight for women’s voting rights. She learns that, while her house seems to be more egalitarian, her friend Rita’s father is a lot more controlling. She learns that some girls are not afforded an education and must work instead. She is inspired to go march in protest and try to convince the men to vote on the ballot measure that will give women the right to vote. Bessie is exposed to the dark side of the struggle as her friend Rita is forcefully removed from a protest by her father, and counter-protesters hurl insults and eggs at them.

The measure does not pass, teaching yet another important lesson–that the fight for justice is never quick or easy and that disappointment and setbacks do not mean you stop fighting. The book ends with Bessie’s father agreeing to join in the suffrage movement and inviting her to go hiking with him. 

What a lovely, inspiring story. Even more poignant because it is based on Bessie Pond’s real experiences. Stacey Schuett’s illustrations are powerful. They evoke the strong emotional connection that the story demands. 

So why am I so thoroughly disappointed in this book? It comes down to a few choices made to erase Anthony’s racism in the supplemental materials included in the back of the book. 

While it is actively noted that Anthony and her friend/fellow activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton started the suffrage movement in conjunction with their involvement in the abolition movement, there is no mention of the subsequent rift between the two movements over Anthony’s bitterness that the Fifteenth Amendment was making greater headway than women’s suffrage. No mention of the racist speeches Anthony made, or her chosen alliances with George Train (“Woman first and negro last.”), or avowed white supremacists like Belle Kearney. 

One could argue that Anthony and Stanton felt that they had been abandoned after abolition had been achieved, not receiving the reciprocity for women’s suffrage that they were expecting. But this does not minimize the fact that Susan B. Anthony’s choices 180 years ago were the foundation of the pattern of justifying the actualization of women’s rights through racism and the erasure of African American labor that still permeates our society today. 

The timeline of women’s suffrage notes that “Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony form the American Equal Rights Association, an organization for white and black women and men dedicated to the goal of universal suffrage,” utterly eliminating the other founders, most notably, Frederick Douglas. There is nothing stating that the AERA dissolved only 3 years later with Anthony giving a horribly racist speech.

The timeline also abruptly ends in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, as if the fight for equal voting rights ends there. Nothing to indicate the millions still denied their constitutionally derived right to vote in 1920 or the years following. No note of the fight to pass the Equal Voting Rights Act of 1965, or the continued struggles of millions of disenfranchised voters today. A child reading this book could be forgiven in thinking that the women’s suffrage movement granted everyone equal and unequivocal access to their right to vote.

These choices seem particularly glaring in the Black Lives Matter era, but even in 2011, when the book was first published, this is a gross misrepresentation (by elimination) of the facts.

History is messy. I am not of the belief that our champions, especially of the past, were somehow above the human condition. I do however, take umbrage when history is whitewashed to make it seem neater than it was. 

At the beginning of this review, I mentioned that the passage of the 15th and 19th Amendments to the Constitution technically afforded African American men and then women respectively, the right to vote.  I say technically because between literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation, and outright violence, African Americans, particularly in the southern states, didn’t functionally get their right to vote untill the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. That’s only fifty-five years ago, and the struggle to get full access to these rights still continues today.

To this day, voter disenfranchisement, voter suppression, lack of access to polling places, lack of disability accommodations, massive purges of eligible voters from voter rolls, new ID rules, etc are used ruthlessly to deny citizen’s rights to the vote. I say this, because at it’s reprinting in 2017, there was yet another missed opportunity for a teachable moment.

If the goal of the book is to teach children that they too can make a difference, shouldn’t they also be taught about how their voice is still needed in this fight?

You can read more about the struggle for equal access to voting rights here:

How Early Suffragists Sold Out Black Women
Yes, Women Could Vote After The 19th Amendment — But Not All Women. Or Men
What the 19th Amendment Meant for Black Women

More books for this Age Group can be found here.

My thanks to Peachtree Publishing for providing a Review Copy of this book. All opinions provided herein are my own.

Please, leave comments! I love a HEALTHY exchange of ideas. After all, critical thinking is essential to life.

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