The upcoming presidential election and its aftermath are hot topics! In conversations and the news, questions about voting rights and wrongs are almost unavoidable. A recent book titled Women’s Right to Vote (2020), written by Kate Messner and illustrated by Dylan Meconis, will bring perspective on this controversy to readers tween and older. Part of publisher Random House’s “History Smashers” series, this entertaining, highly illustrated volume uses humor to reinforce its serious message about voting inequities and people’s fights to correct these injustices. This new book expands on points made in some earlier graphic works about the voting discrimination faced by women and Black people, reviewed by me in this post as well as this one and here.
Women’s Right to Vote communicates this longstanding discrimination through humorously blunt words and clearly-drawn black and white images. For instance, Messner titles two of her book’s ten chapters “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back” and “Listen Up, White House!” At one point, she captions Meconis’s illustration of the grim-faced response of Supreme Court justices to the possibility of women’s voting with just one pungent word: “Nope.”
Throughout this book, Meconis deploys expressive features as well as artful body language to complement and expand Messner’s information. For example, when readers learn that rights advocate Abby Kelley Foster was pelted by rotten eggs and food, the illustration also shows Foster gripping an apple as though she is about to toss it back at her opponents! Most of Meconis’ illustrations are single half or full-page drawings but she also includes a handful of double-page graphic novel episodes to deepen key historical moments. This hybrid novel’s illustrations also include a number of photographs and a few contemporaneous newspaper illustrations.
Facts which often have been omitted from the history of voting rights pepper this volume. Readers may be surprised to learn about Queen Amina’s long, successful reign in 16th century Nigeria or how, until 1807, women voted in New Jersey because the law there did not forbid them from doing that. Yet such individual facts are less significant than the ongoing differences of opinion within the women’s rights movement highlighted in Women’s Right to Vote. Sad to say, an influential number of white women activists, including such prominent figures as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, did not believe Black or immigrant men, let alone women, should have the vote. They argued against this, either out of racism or political expediency, and later, along with others, downplayed or separated the efforts of Black women activists from white women’s groups. One of Meconis’ graphic novel episodes, featuring Frederick Douglass among others, portrays the complexity of activist views on this issue. Some Black activists such as Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells-Barnett formed their own groups to advocate for voting rights.
Sometimes, Black activists refused to accept their exclusion from officially all-white groups and their events, joining in the protest marches organized by these organizations. These strong, at times bitter differences among people otherwise seeking similar political changes will resonate with today’s readers. We are well aware that supporters of each of this year’s presidential candidates frequently have different goals and priorities motivating their support. How to identify and change systemic racism is just one of these differing points within and between these groups.
Women’s Right to Vote also catalogues the ways in which police here in the United States and in Great Britain consistently overlooked violence against women protesters, sometimes themselves brutalizing protesters during events and after arresting them. Most judges upheld then-current laws, fining and imprisoning some protesters. This long history of government officials perpetuating or sanctioning violence against protestors, however non-violent, also resonates today, in daily news and the presidential campaign. In the book’s final chapter, “The Fight Goes On,” Messner highlights this relevance by concluding with photographs of current, diverse women legislators, subtitled “the changing face of leadership.” She and Meconis also discuss how some laws about voting registration, filing, and location continue to limit or hinder people’s right to vote.
It is my strong hope that former Vice-President Biden will become our next president. If that does not come to pass, Women’s Right to Vote—with its accompanying lengthy timeline of protests and eventual legislative change—is a heartening reminder that progress towards justice and inclusion eventually does occur. That this book is just one among a spate of volumes published this last year to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, legalizing the voting rights of all U.S. women, is another heartening reminder of progress. If the aftermath of the election is contested, we may also benefit from the perspective on social and political change offered by this book.
Appreciative readers of Women’s Right to Vote will definitely enjoy Messner and Meconis’ other volume in the History Smashers series: The Mayflower (2020). It is both very light-hearted and informative. I look forward to their upcoming volumes in this series: Pearl Harbor (2021), The Titanic (2021), and The American Revolution (2021).