Roessner Essay: Recovering the “Voices of the People”

Roessner
Amber Roessner, University of Tennessee

Answering continued calls for a cultural approach to the study of women’s history, “The Voices of Public Opinion: Lingering Structures of Feeling about Women’s Suffrage in 1917 U.S. Newspaper Letters to the Editor” (Journalism History, April 2020) explores what social historian and cultural theorist Raymond Williams referred to as lingering traces of “structures of feeling,” or the remaining sources offering evidence of differing mentalities vying to emerge as the common-sense logic at one moment in the past, surrounding women’s suffrage in letters published in the U.S. commercial periodical press.

In order to gain a better understanding of the production, regulation, consumption, and negotiation of letters to the editor in this seminal year in the campaign for women’s suffrage, I embraced cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall’s circuit of culture, a heuristic pedagogical framework turned interdisciplinary methodological device designed to engage in a case-studies approach to analyzing material cultural texts. In the final analysis, my discourse analysis of 225 letters to the editor published in five prominent U.S. newspapers, alongside other relevant primary and secondary sources, offered insight into the production of letters to the editor as an act of strategic communication by suffragists and anti-suffragists, the regulation of letters to the editor by news gatekeepers and agenda-setters, and the consumption of letters to the editor by newspaper readers.

To supplement the research article, this teaching essay offers suggested readings, discussions, experiential learning activities, and assignments for undergraduate and graduate students in a wide range of interdisciplinary courses, including women’s studies, women’s history, media history, media studies, media, diversity and society, political communication, public opinion, and theory and methods courses. Based upon these activities, students will have the opportunity to examine these contested editorial spaces firsthand and to explore the negotiation of common-sense logics that continue to inform our present-day discourse unfolded.

Suggested Class Discussions

For Undergraduate Women’s Studies, Women’s History, Media History, Media Studies, Media, Diversity & Society Courses

What is the National Woman’s Party and why might it be important?

Why did leaders of the women’s rights social movement and its countermovement think it was important to negotiate coverage in the commercial periodical press? Why did they all ultimately embrace a letter to the editor campaign to make their arguments to the American people?

Based upon your understanding of this article and other suggested readings, why was 1917 such as seminal year in the campaign for woman suffrage?

What communication strategies did future generations of women’s rights advocates embrace in their social justice campaigns for equity?

For Undergraduate and Graduate Political Communication & Public Opinion Courses

How did presidents and other political actors measure public opinion in the early twentieth century, and how might these techniques still be useful today?

For Undergraduate and Graduate Journalism Skills Courses

What strategies did letter writers use to make a compelling argument about this controversial social issue?

How do news publishers and editors engage in gatekeeping, censoring, and framing letters to the editor?

For Graduate Theory and Methods Courses

Based upon our reading of Harold Innis’s Bias of Communication, what is the bias of letters to the editor?

How might we can additional insight into how publishers and editors have omitted, edited, and framed letters to the editor?

How might we gain insight into how news audiences read and responded to letters to the editor?

How might we apply Hall’s Circuit of Culture cultural studies, case studies model to other texts and media technologies across time?

What other sources might we look to offer insight into lingering traces of structures of feeling?

Where might we start if we were hoping to recover lingering traces of structures of feeling from this moment?

Suggested Undergraduate Class Activity & Assignment

Activity

Examine the digitized primary sources catalogued on ProQuest Historical Newspapers and Chronicling America by searching letters to the editor about “woman suffrage”  published over the course of 1917 and recover the “voice[s] of the people” and their lingering traces of the structures of feeling.

Assignment

Step One: Examine the Context

After reading the Journalism History article and the suggested readings, review the context offered on these sites:

Step Two: Explore Coverage of the Women’s Suffrage Movement

Leah Weinryb Grohsgal shared several tremendous resources for exploring primary sources materials that offers insight into the coverage of the women’s suffrage movement, including:

  • The Library of Congress’s topic page for The Nineteenth Amendment (votes for women), which offers important dates, suggested search terms, and sample articles. Consider searching around general keywords, such as “woman suffrage,” or consider exploring coverage around certain individuals, such as Alice Paul, or organizations, such as the National Woman’s Party.
  • The Library of Congress’s American Memory project, which has catalogued digitized images, recordings, and additional documents related to the women’s suffrage movement.
Step Three: Engage through Analysis
  1. Based upon the resources in this exercise and your selected sample of coverage, how did the commercial periodical press re-present women during the women’s suffrage movement and its countermovement?
  2. Based upon the resources in this exercise and your selected sample of coverage, how did leaders in the women’s suffrage movement and its countermovement navigate and negotiate coverage of their grassroots movements?

Moreover, instructors might consider developing additional activities based upon the NEH’s EDSITEment Chronicling America portal, which contains resources for searching the database and using newspapers in the classroom.

Suggested Readings & Resources

James Carey, “The Problem of Journalism History,” Journalism History 1.1 (1974): 3-27.

Paul du Gay, et al., Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman (New York: Sage, 1997).

Teri Finneman, “Covering a Countermovement on the Verge of Defeat: The Press and the 1917 Social Movement Against Woman Suffrage,” American Journalism 36.1 (2019): 124-143.

Philip Goldstein and James L. Machor, New Directions in American Reception Study (London: Oxford University Press, 2007), 233-54.

Susan Herbst, Numbered Voices: How Opinion Polling Has Shaped American Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1995), 1-88.

Christine A. Lunardini and Thomas J. Knock, “Woodrow Wilson and Woman Suffrage: A New Look,” Political Science Quarterly 95.4 (1980): 655-671.

Linda J. Lumsden, Rampant Women: Suffragists and the Right of Assembly (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 1-273.

David Paul Nord, “The Politics of Agenda-Setting in Late Nineteenth-Century Cities,” Journalism Quarterly 58.4 (1974): 565-74.

David Paul Nord, “Reading the Newspaper: Strategies and Political Reader Response, Chicago, 1912-1917,” Journal of Communication 45.3 (Summer 1995): 66-93.

James Startt, Woodrow Wilson, The Great War, and the Fourth Estate (College Station: Texas A&M University Press), 1-441.

Leah Weinryb Grohsgal, “From the Local to the Global: America’s Newspapers Chronicle the Struggle for Women’s Rights,” National Endowment for the Humanities, February 7, 2014, https://www.neh.gov/divisions/preservation/featured-project/the-local-the-global-americas-newspapers-chronicle-the

Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (New York: Broadview Press, 2001).

 

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