An Uncomfortable Truth: 12 books that discuss the 19th Amendment and the limits of women’s suffrage

The year 2020 marks a century since women gained voting rights in the United States. While all of the books in this list tackle voting rights, they do so in myriad ways, from biographies of radical individuals like Frederick Douglass to novels about young activists to works of nonfiction that shed light on lesser-known narratives, such as the racism of the suffragists.

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The year 2020 marks a century since women gained voting rights in the United States. As detailed in several of the books on this list, suffragists were inspired by their British ­counterparts. They took slogans such as “Deeds, not words” and “Votes for women!” back to the United States. These international partnerships encouraged American women to use equal parts patience and passion.

However, while many celebrate suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony—during Hillary Clinton’s presidential run, hundreds of “I Voted Today” stickers were placed on Anthony’s headstone in Rochester, NY—the reality is that they weren’t the definitive vanguard of the women’s movement. The movement focused on securing and protecting constitutional voting rights for white women, and in general, allyship across racial lines was not a deciding ­factor in the goals of white suffragettes.

With that awareness of history in mind, some media outlets aim not only to commemorate the amendment’s ratification but also to elevate the dismissed contributions of Black women and men. Moreover, many of the issues that activists worked to combat are still relevant. Voter suppression, which includes tactics such as voter ID laws, still impacts marginalized communities.

While all of the books listed below tackle voting rights, they do so in myriad ways, from biographies of radical individuals like Frederick Douglass to novels about young activists to works of nonfiction that shed light on lesser-known narratives, such as the racism of the suffragists.

Nonfiction

CONKLING, Winifred. Votes for Women!: American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot. Algonquin. 2018. ISBN 9781616207342.
Gr 6 - 10 –Featuring prominent figures (Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Victoria Claflin Woodhull, and Alice Paul) who championed women’s suffrage, Conkling’s book discusses politics, social justice, and activism alongside the abolition and temperance movements. The text highlights the advocates’ fierce passion but does not downplay the sexism and racism that Black women faced. Well-documented primary source material reveals the racism of white suffragists.

DIONNE, Evette. Lifting as We Climb: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box. Viking. Apr. 2020. ISBN 9780451481542.
Gr 5-7– This chronological history provides biographical vignettes detailing Black women’s contributions to suffrage. Using her perspective as a Black feminist writer, Dionne shares the untold stories that advanced the cause, including information about Sarah Mapps Douglass, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and the founding of Black women’s clubs that still exist today.

FRAZER, Coral Celeste. Vote!: Women’s Fight for Access to the Ballot Box. Lerner/Twenty-First Century. 2019. ISBN 9781541528154.
Gr 6 Up –This focused introductory text covers current movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo as powerful examples of uplifting silenced voices. Frazer discusses the painful history of racist white female suffragists discounting Black enfranchisement and why women’s right to vote was granted by Western states and territories decades before national suffrage. There is also information about voting laws and the lack of voting equality throughout history. The hearty back matter could inspire readers to conduct further research.

JACK, Zachary Michael. March of the Suffragettes: Rosalie Gardiner Jones and the March for Voting Rights. Lerner/Zest. 2016. ISBN 9781936976805.
Gr 7 Up –This concise biography highlights Rosalie Gardiner Jones’s march for women’s suffrage. In 1912, Jones spearheaded a 175-mile march from New York City to the state capitol in ­Albany. The accessible text highlights one white suffragist’s story by addressing the political maneuvering needed to further the cause. Newspaper accounts of the march are included.

KANEFIELD, Teri. Susan B. Anthony. (The Making of America: Bk. 4.) Abrams. 2019. ISBN 9781419734014.
Gr 6-10 –Kanefield covers Susan B. Anthony’s life from her Quaker upbringing to her death. The text emphasizes the conflict between African American male voting rights vs. white women’s enfranchisement. Anthony said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” Her mindset is an example of the prejudices that led to the creation and splitting of alliances, associations, and clubs that wanted to achieve their cause to the detriment of others.

KENNEDY, Nancy B. Women Win the Vote!: 19 for the 19th Amendment. illus. by Katy Dockrill. Norton. Feb. 2020. ISBN 9781324004141.
Gr 5-8– This collective biography features 19 iconic women who were instrumental in ratifying the 19th Amendment. A splash page of their images and contributions kicks off each short biographical profile. The text describes a wide range of tenacious women and details obstacles they overcame, their life experiences, and their religious and racial backgrounds.

[Read: Vote of Confidence: When It Comes to Teaching the 2020 Election, Educators Have a Plan]

SMITH, Erin Geiger. Thank You for Voting: The Past, Present, and Future of Voting. HarperCollins. Jun. 2020. ISBN 9780062972385.
Gr 8 Up– Smith’s young readers edition serves as a tool for new and/or inexperienced voters. Using history as its foundation, the text moves into the present day and acts as a call to action for new voters. Activists will be motivated to take cues from their predecessors.

ZIMET, Susan & Todd Hasak-Lowy. Roses and Radicals: The Epic Story of How American Women Won the Right To Vote. Viking. 2018. ISBN 9780451477545.
Gr 6-8– Expertly using text boxes, which feature “Putting It in Perspective” callouts, this book depicts the grim realities of suffragists who were arrested and tortured. Most didn’t live to cast the ballot after decades of toil. This brief but focused nonfiction work highlights a portion of history that may be unfamiliar to readers.

Fiction

ALBERTALLI, Becky & Aisha Saeed. Yes No Maybe So. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Feb. 2020. ISBN 9780062937049.
Gr 7 Up –Understanding the legislative process and protecting freedoms are important to Jamie and Maya, who are Jewish and Muslim, respectively. Cowritten by two powerhouse authors, this young adult novel offers romance with a side of political activism, ultimately encouraging readers to participate in the voting process beyond Election Day.

COLBERT, Brandy. The Voting Booth. Disney-Hyperion. Jul. 2020. ISBN 9781368053297.
Gr 7-10 –Passion takes precedence for Marva Sheridan, whose ambition to see eligible voters cast their ballot provides the foundation for a new romance with Duke Crenshaw. Their daylong adventure to find Duke’s polling place is a meet-cute story centering on teens engaged in political activism. Readers will root for Marva, who is a tenacious girl willing to fight for voters’ rights and battle the obstacles designed to block it.

Graphic Nonfiction

KENDALL, Mikki. Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight for Their Rights. illus. by A. D’Amico. Ten Speed. 2019. ISBN 9780399581793.
Gr 10 Up –This graphic novel showcases the fight for women’s rights in the United States and across the world, including the fight for voting rights. The book’s broader context puts the history of voting into perspective alongside other struggles and social issues. Kendall spotlights women who may be unfamiliar to young readers, and D’Amico’s vibrant illustrations are expressive.

WALKER, David F. The Life of Frederick Douglass: A Graphic Narrative of a Slave’s Journey from Bondage to Freedom. illus. by Damon Smyth & Marissa Louise. Ten Speed. 2019. ISBN 9780399581441.
Gr 10 Up –This comprehensive graphic novel told from Frederick Douglass’s point of view illuminates his lasting impact on American history and politics. The child of an enslaved woman, Douglass famously gained liberation through literacy and became a radical leading figure in the abolitionist movement. He also fought for voting rights for all African Americans and became an advocate for women’s suffrage. In 1866, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, he founded the American Equal Rights Association.


Alicia Abdul is a high school librarian in Albany, NY. She shares her reading on Instagram @ReadersBeAdvised and has been on three YALSA award and selection committees.

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