Finneman offers context to suffrage struggle

Woman’s Journal and Suffrage News reports on the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress)

Teri Finneman (University of Kansas) is the author of the article “‘The Greatest of Its Kind Ever Witnessed in America’: The Press and the 1913 Women’s March on Washington” in the Summer 2018 issue of Journalism History. Finneman originally presented this research at the American Journalism Historians Association 2017 conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she received the Wm. David Sloan Award for Best Faculty Paper and the Maurine Beasley Award for Outstanding Research in Women’s History.

In the below Q&A, Finneman discusses the process of writing the article as well as future plans for commemorating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States. In June 1919, Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote and sent it to the states for ratification; the amendment was ratified in August 1920. — Erika Pribanic-Smith

What was the impetus behind the topic for this article?

I’m still very much a reporter, and I try to think about what people are going to be talking about. I started doing things for the suffrage anniversary that is coming up. Then when the Women’s March on Washington happened, it made me think about what context there could be in history.

How did you do the research for this article?

I used Chronicling America, which is really my go-to source. It can be a little frustrating because it’s down so often, but it has a lot of historical newspapers available.

Also, the last time I went to the New York conference [Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference], I did some work at the New York Public Library and pulled a lot of suffrage materials.

Other than the frustration with Chronicling America, what challenges did you face when writing this article?

My computer died, so that was the biggest challenge I had. A few weeks before the AJHA submission deadline, my computer went out and I had to mail it in to get it fixed. That was tremendously stressful.

Another challenge was that I was new to social movement theory. I had to learn as much as I could about the theory to apply it to this research.

Why did you choose that particular theory?

I stumbled across it while reading a journal article. I was interested to see how social movements were covered in the past, what we can learn from that coverage, and how we might to do a better job covering social movements today.

Since then I have used it in another article I did about the anti-suffragists as well, which will be in the special Women’s Suffrage and the Media issue of American Journalism that’s coming out in April 2019.

What is the most interesting thing you learned while writing this article?

For people who study suffrage, this is well-known, but most people have no idea there was an anti-suffrage movement or even that there were different factions within the suffrage movement itself. It was interesting to see some of the tensions between Alice Paul, who organized the women’s march, and the mainstream suffrage movement. Carrie Chapman Catt and others were hesitant to let Alice Paul go forward with her plans. I think the reasoning was that if she bombed, the suffragists could say Alice Paul did it on her own. When it was a success, they wrote that the board gladly supported her efforts—but not really.

From a race perspective, the press didn’t give a lot of attention to the racial tensions, but there was some press coverage of white suffragists blatantly not accepting the black suffragists who were trying to participate. It was pretty striking; I wish the press had delved into it more.

One of my primary findings, though, was the lack of context and complexity included in articles about social movements. Just like today, they were focused on episodic coverage—the zazz of the event itself without context of what got us here and why it’s happening.

Why do you believe it’s important for people today to understand that context?

When you look at low voter turnout and have this knowledge of the history of suffrage, it’s remarkable. So many women today don’t realize that women spent decades upon decades fighting for this right. They went on hunger strikes, they picketed, they went to jail, they got into big physical tussles over women’s right to vote. People don’t have that context today, but it’s important to know how hard women of the past worked to give us this right that so many now take for granted.

You mentioned the upcoming suffrage issue of American Journalism. What are other ways the journalism history community is commemorating the anniversary of women’s suffrage?

We are aiming to have a panel at the next AEJMC conference where we would have members from the History Division and the Commission on the Status of Women talking about ways to include suffrage in our curricula, both to give historical perspective and to help students understand why this still applies to them today.

We also have a very large committee of members from the History Division and Commission on the Status of Women who will spend the next year working on a variety of ideas and suggestions for things we can do to recognize this important moment in history.




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