Today’s Women’s Marchers owe a lot to Johanna Neuman’s Gilded Suffragists. There’s no doubt that high society at the turn of the twentieth century was the precursor of today’s activist celebrities. I just wish Neuman’s book had been more compelling.

The women’s suffrage and enfranchisement movements weren’t moving forward very quickly until the women of means started to participate. These were women who understood how to manage the media of time. They also had the backing—if only financially—of wealthy husbands and families. Their social lives gave them access to both local and national politicians as well.

Despite those advantages, the suffragists didn’t unite together behind one banner. They created various separate committees and organizations. Then the groups wasted energy fighting with each other instead of just against the patriarchy. I was incredibly frustrated by the factions, which stalled and derailed the process. Yet somehow, they managed to pull it off. Women became fully voting U.S. citizens.

To me, the story as Neuman tells it isn’t that they accomplished their goal in spite of male opposition. It is that they accomplished their goal in spite of themselves.

The book’s tone and structure frustrated me. Most of the book felt like a recitation of facts, with only a minor bit of sociological interpretation in the last several pages. Neuman chose not to include much supposed dialogue among the suffragists, gilded or otherwise. I understand the author’s desire to stay strictly historical, but this can be done artfully as well as accurately. For example, the way Holly Tucker did in City of Light, City of Poison.

Neuman built the story chronologically. And yet, I often felt that the same facts were introduced as new in multiple places. I never quite connected with any of the women involved, despite the information I learned about them. And the various factions only added to my frustration. I wish the book’s organization had focused on fewer women, or had followed committee lines instead of timelines. Perhaps another style would have made it seem less like a doctoral dissertation.

Nevertheless, I was glad to learn about the participation of these women in a cause that has defined the way American women contribute to politics. Kudos to Neuman for bringing them to the forefront.


Thanks to NetGalley, New York University Press, and the author for a digital ARC in exchange for this honest review.