Before Women Could Vote, Who Were We?

In the current atmosphere of American politics, many of us are reflecting on what voting means—personally and collectively. I tend to think of suffrage along racial and gender lines, because there was a long period of our history when a large part of the population could not act to elect leaders or pass laws. Because political leadership and legal decisions affect our daily lives, determining what we can say and do and even be, there may be no topic more worthy of reflection than this.  

All Americans (with some exceptions) have been voting for more than a hundred years. It seems this is enough time for there to be generational amnesia about what it was like to be denied the right to vote. Since women were granted suffrage throughout the country by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, a lot has happened. But essentially, you and I were born feeling we have a voice and some agency in deciding the conditions under which we live. It has been easy to take this for granted—I know I have—until the last presidential election and now with the upcoming one in 2024. 

When I envisioned The Queen Bee series back in 2020, I knew I wanted to zoom in on the story of one woman who helped suffrage for women happen. Among the questions that guided my research was: What had Annabelle Manning experienced that fueled her burning desire for suffrage and all the effort that obtaining it required? I dove in, and the result is the first book, Our Sealed Letters. But just in case you want to reflect on what life was like before women could vote, in legal terms, I thought I’d share a reminder. 

Women had no legal rights or control over property, earnings, or children. When they married, their husband assumed legally granted authority over everything that was meaningful and necessary. 

This gave women few opportunities in life. They could easily be prevented from pursuing education or professions by a father or husband who disapproved. It created a society that discouraged them from doing anything other than mothering children, taking care of the home, and perhaps becoming involved in social charity work. If a married woman did earn wages, as a maid or shopkeeper perhaps, the money was not hers to control. She had to seek an allowance or permission to spend it, therefore leaving her physical needs up to the benevolent—or unjust or cruel or miserly—nature of the man in her life. 

I reflected a lot on what this means for the ultimate decision—who to marry. Abundant romance novels idealize this moment in a nineteenth-century young woman’s life. Perhaps this is why the genre has such staying power, because who a woman married determined everything about her life: her health, happiness or misery, and what activities she engaged. The fact that a man legally controlled her radiates into a million daily circumstances. So in Our Sealed Letters, I explore this moment, when a young woman comes of age and begins courting, to include the full ramifications for what it will mean to the rest of her life. It was surely a time of immense pressure, when her powerlessness was abundantly clear. 

The argument for maintaining this legal status was led by people wanting to uphold the custom of separate spheres of influence. According to them, men guided and controlled the “public” sphere of governance, business, and information. Women were in charge of the “private” sphere of home, family, and children. This is present in Our Sealed Letters, in the way that Annabelle’s parents literally divide their home. Her father, Auguste, manages the 1,000-acre property of the plantation as well as the public-facing downstairs of their home.  Her mother, Evelyn, confines herself to managing the household, and she and Annabelle primarily occupy the upstairs rooms of the tabby house. They never venture far from their refuge and enclave. As a result, the three slave villages at Manning Place, the realities of enslaved people picking the brutal cotton plant, and the ways of life among hundreds of field slaves were shielded from them. 

Living in such a removed way, relegated largely to the physical walls of the house and the emotional walls of concerns within it, many white women hardly encountered the realities of marginalized communities. While her husband (in the North or South) might be owning or employing underfed and overworked immigrants or minorities, this woman had to be content with either overseeing or performing the following: decorating, entertaining, housekeeping, tending children, dressing, and preparing meals. Unless she was part of the working class, highly empathic to what she witnessed on the streets, educated or busy reading novels, involved in day-to-day charity work (as opposed to just raising money)—her world was the home. That is, the home owned by her husband, the food he put on the table, and the clothing and decorations he funded and therefore had influence over. This makes me wonder: Did a woman have anything that belonged only to her?   

She had her thoughts. Her private journal or diary. Her relationships—and the personal correspondances that maintained those relationships across distances. To me, nothing symbolizes the confinement of the time—and the effort to connect across it—better than letter writing. But in order for the contents of a letter to belong to her, it must only be read by others at her discretion. She must keep some private, hidden. This was why, in Our Sealed Letters, I devised the women’s letter-writing system. Evelyn and Annabelle write to their Northern relatives under two colored seals: red and blue. Red is public, and therefore delivered to the tray in the parlor that also delivers mail to Auguste. At his whim, he reads the letters from the North. Blue is private, delivered by the enslaved “houseboy,” Clarence, at great risk to him, to the upstairs sitting room where the women spend most of their time. This way, the women in the novel have something that belongs to them personally and collectively. 

Otherwise, before women had the vote, it was possible that everything good and decent and loving could be denied to them—by the whims of men. Think on it, read about it, and appreciate your vote. Because having basic rights makes your daily freedom possible.

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