(Image from “The Declaration of Sentiments,” Women’s Rights Historical Park, The National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/articles/declaration-of-sentiments.htm. This was the statement promulgated in 1848 at meeting regarding women’s rights held in New York. It is commonly called the Seneca Falls Convention. Notice that Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were among the authors.)
In A Balm in Gilead (to be published in early 2021), Maggie continues to find herself – unwillingly – taking on a larger role in the town of Blaineton. Early in the novel, husband Eli provides a rather powerful argument for her involvement in the town’s political life, but Maggie still demurs:
Eli says, “… [the people] lack a leader. Someone to encourage them. Someone who listens to them and advises them. Politics is a give and take process, Maggie. The leader inspires the people, the people respond, and then the leader works with them and encourages them more as they work toward their goal.”
“Yes, well,” she muttered, “I’m hardly a leader, Elijah. Women are neither leaders nor politicians. It’s just not done.”
Maggie responds this way because, in the nineteenth century, women and politics were not supposed to mix. It was an era in which women began lifting their voices, organizing in greater numbers, and putting pressure on established attitudes and laws, efforts that were highly controversial. In the end, though, all the hard work, ridicule, and dedication led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, an amendment that guaranteed women the right to vote. (“Teach a Girl to Lead”)
We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of that Amendment this year. The uglier, more frightening, and louder aspects of 2020 have tried to drown that anniversary out. Just the same, it is something to celebrate this year. The Amendment exists and won’t go away unless we allow it to be taken away.
Now here’s the kicker: the assumption is that women could not vote before 1920. Well, that wrong assumption is wrong. Do you know that before 1920 women already were voting in many parts of the United States? They were! Women were casting ballots in five territories: Wyoming, Utah, Washington, Montana, and Alaska. They also could vote in fifteen states: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, California, Arizona, Kansas, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, New York, Michigan, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. Please note that all but one of the territories continued female suffrage after they became states! Additionally, the following states allowed women to vote for President: Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio, Indiana, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. (“Teach a Girl to Lead”)
Here are the states that did not permit women to vote. Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia. (“Teach a Girl to Lead”)
A quick glance at the last list reveals that states that did not permit women to vote were mainly the founding colonies (except for New York) of the United States, and states that had been part of the Confederate States of America. When I saw the list on paper, or rather on my computer screen, I wondered, “How come? Why would the colonies who fought for the right of self-representation withhold the vote from women? And why did the Southern states keep the franchise away from women?”
I haven’t been able to engage in researching the question yet, so I’m going to provide a couple of guesses based on what I know thus far. Let’s deal with the Southern states first because the answer seems rather obvious to me. From 1860-1865, they were engaged in a war. From 1865 into the 1870s, they were reeling from defeat and struggling to recover. It is not improbable that an issue like women’s rights would have been pushed to the back burner. I’m not saying that a movement for women’s rights did not exist in the South, rather I am suggesting the political powers that be chose to deal with the other issues.
Now, what about the states formed from the original colonies? Why did they refuse to offer women the right to vote? I suspect that the answer lies in the fact that they had long-established European and colonial political traditions and attitudes that would have shaped their view of women and women's rights.
However, things were different for Euro-Americans who moved westward. They were open to votes for women. I believe part of this may be because the westward bound immigrants were forced to adapt and innovate as they found themselves in new surroundings and situations. Thus their societal and political norms needed to be more than fluid than they were back East or down South. Out West, life and politics were an “all-hands-on-deck” experience that encouraged men to recognize women’s abilities and intelligence. Why not let the ladies vote? After all, Sally over there just wrestled a grizzly bear to the ground. (Okay, I’m being humorous, but you get my drift.)
Also, allow me to add that neither Hawaii nor Alaska are included in the pre-1920 state listings about voting rights for women. There are some reasons for that. Alaska did not become a state until 3 January 1959, while Hawaii became a territory in 1900 and attained statehood on 21 August 1959. So, they came into the USA long after 1920.
In the Saint Maggie series, Maggie’s home is the state of New Jersey, which did not guarantee suffrage to women until the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Like most of the original 13 colonies, New Jersey was a latecomer to female suffrage. But, wait a minute! Not so fast. The case of New Jersey’s relationship with female suffrage is a bit stranger than it seems at first glance. Good old NJ has an unusual history regarding women’s suffrage.
I don’t know why I should be surprised at this. My home state has been known to approach human rights in an odd, sometimes mind-boggling way. For instance, of all the Northeastern states, we were the last to end slavery, and this was because we chose the route of gradual manumission rather than immediate abolition. As a result, our 1860 census included several individuals who, although not classified outright as such, were still enslaved people.
And so, my next blog will look at New Jersey’s twisted history regarding women’s suffrage. Strap yourselves in. It's a roller coaster ride. Kind of.
Meanwhile, have a Happy Thanksgiving! I know things are radically different this year, but if we play this right, Thanksgiving 2021 will be more familiar.
Stay well, friends.
Janet R. Stafford
Teach a Girl to Lead: Women’s Suffrage by State, compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics
White Cotton Dress and Women's Suffrage Sash, Mount Holyoke College.
Learn more about this dress and sash at:
Writing A Balm in Gilead has been challenging for me. The next Saint Maggie full-length novel has two storylines – and they pushed me to learn more about mid-19th century science and politics.
The most obvious challenge was the main storyline of the epidemic. I had to learn as much as I could about typhoid fever and its treatment in the mid-1860s to flesh out a story about an epidemic and how a small town in New Jersey dealt with it. I needed to know the causes of typhoid fever, how long after exposure a person would start exhibiting symptoms, what course the disease generally took, how much physicians and scientists knew at the time, and how it was treated (or not treated).
Early in the writing process, I developed a timeline for the disease that ran from the earliest exposure to a time cases no longer were being reported. I tried to follow my timeline, but as I’m still in the revision process, I’ll see how closely I stuck to it! If things are too far off, then I will need to move things around in the manuscript and do a bit of rewriting. You may ask, why bother doing this? It’s fiction! Yes, it is. But it’s also historical fiction. And my graduate work in the field of North American Religion and Culture taught me to be as accurate as possible when it comes to history. While some things can be “fudged” when writing historical fiction, I cannot ignore a story’s historical underpinnings. Good historical fiction will tell a compelling story and have characters with whom readers can identify without sacrificing its historicity.
The secondary storyline involves Maggie and her possible run for political office. And it is this, and 19th century women and politics in general, to which I will devote the next few blog posts.
I took an early stab at the topic through three blog posts in December 2019. However, since the new book will be published early in 2021, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit some of this information and maybe go a little deeper.
Truthfully, I found the topic of women in 19th century USA politics to be much more difficult to research than typhoid fever. The best resource I have found to date lives on the internet. Indeed, most of my research must be done on the internet. This necessity is not just because of the current COVID pandemic. It also is because I do not have the time, nor the money, to travel to libraries and archives to do onsite information. Maybe post-COVID and after I retire, I’ll be able to do hang out among old books again, because I love nothing better than nosing through dusty old tomes and periodicals. I’m serious about this. I’m a total geek and would be lying if I didn’t say I totally miss my grad school years when I could spend hours at the United Methodist Archives and Special Archives at Drew University (Madison, NJ).
So much for nostalgia. Let’s get on with it.
To my great disappointment, most online sources I found were focused on women’s election to national and state offices. Generally, they offered next to nothing on what women were doing locally in the 1800s.
Well, that was discouraging! But I couldn’t let that go. I knew there was something more to the story. I just could not rid myself of the hunch that women got active locally before they moved into larger fields.
That hunch was based on my knowledge of how women moved into other fields. One example of this may be found in religious circles – more specifically, women living in the USA who were members of Protestant churches. In the 1800s, women in these settings first began to move into leadership positions by starting groups of their own to undertake mission and other benevolent work. These women tackled issues that had an impact on other women: poverty, health, education, nutrition, alcoholism, and more. Eventually, they raised money and sent women to work as missionaries nationally and abroad. Basically, they took things into their own hands.
Finally, during one search, I found what I was looking for: “Her Hat Was in the Ring: How Thousands of Women Were Elected to Political Office before 1920.” This is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to start wading into the weeds of women and local politics. This is what caught my attention:
“In 1866, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the well-known leader of the woman’s rights movement, declared her intention to run for Congress, from Brooklyn, New York. Stanton was probably the first woman to campaign for a federal office. It would be another fifty years before the first woman took her seat in Congress. In 1916, Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana, was elected and served in the US House of Representatives from 1917 to 1919. Far less well known is the fact that in the decade before Stanton announced her intention to campaign for office, four women had been elected to local and county offices in three states” (“Her Hat Was in the Ring”).
I probably do not need to say that I was thrilled. But I was thrilled! The last sentence in that paragraph confirmed what I had suspected. Maggie’s proposed run for political office falls into that “far less well known” category. It was not common for women to run for local office, but it was done. It would have been possible for Maggie to run for office, although rare. As portrayed in the series, Maggie is an exceptional woman, one who has gifts, graces, and learned skills that recommend her as a town leader.
With that in mind the next two blogs will 1) take a little look at the history of women’s early involvement in politics, and 2) investigate how Maggie’s skill set would fit her for political office, despite her own fears.
Have a good week, everyone.
And again, please stay safe. This pandemic ain’t over yet, so be considerate, kind, and patient with one another.
Janet R. Stafford
Chmielewski, Wendy, “Her Hat Was in the Ring: How Thousands of Women Were Elected to Political Office before 1920,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History; AP US History Study Guide; http://ap.gilderlehrman.org/node/317932
(I designed a little sign for Maggie's possible run for Town Council)
Sorry! I don't have a cover image yet for A Balm in Gilead and have not been able to find an appropriate image for typhoid fever, aside from that of the ubiquitous Typhoid Mary, who was around later in the 19th century.
The new novel in the Saint Maggie series will be published early in 2021. Its title was taken from both a Bible verse and a hymn. I realize that many of my book titles and content are biblical, and this might lead some people to think that I write Christian fiction. But to reiterate, I don’t write Christian fiction. I believe that genre is designed to support religious and social beliefs among a specific Christian cohort. That’s not what I do.
What I do is write historical fiction that happens to be about Maggie (a Christian of the Methodist variety), Eli (her former Quaker husband who identifies as a free-thinker), and her unconventional household, which includes bests friend Emily and Nate who are Black, and Lydia and Frankie, her daughters from her marriage to John Blaine. Lydia is interested in medicine and Frankie wants to be a pastor. This mix of characters allows me to explore the issues of the 1860s: race, slavery, war, religion, women’s rights, industrialization, disease and medical care, and more.
Do I have an agenda? Of course, I do. I’m a writer. If you write, you have an agenda, even if it simply is to make people laugh (comedy), feel hot (porn), or fall in love with their characters (romance). In my case, I believe that humans are better as individuals and as a community when they practice the art of loving others. That includes, among other things, being merciful, just, kind, and patient. My books are sort of an 1800s petri dish for how people might have dealt with the questions of their time.
A Balm in Gilead finds Maggie in an interesting place. She had begun her journey as “that woman,” a widow whose best friends are Black, who participates in the Underground Railroad, and who runs a boarding house full of men from the edges of society. But now she finds herself growing into one of the leading figures of her little town. Although Maggie would much rather continue to lead by example, which is her proverbial “wheelhouse,” she suddenly finds that friends and family are pushing her into making a run for Town Council.
Maggie lives in a historical era when the very first women in the United States were tentatively venturing into the political field as candidates – and doing when most states (except for a few territories out West) did not permit women to vote. Now, tender, self-effacing Maggie finds herself as a reluctant flag-bearer for the nascent votes-for-women movement.
Her ability to lead and think on her feet becomes evident to everyone when a typhoid fever epidemic strikes the woolen mill and uniform factory to the south and then spreads to the town. But Maggie is not alone in fight. Dr. Lydia Frost, her eldest daughter, works with colleague Dr. Fred Lightner to discern how the epidemic happened and how to stop it. (Note: my characters live at a time right before germ theory has become established and when contact tracing is in its infancy, if not still in the womb. In other words, they live with more questions than answers.) The epidemic also inspires Frankie Blaine, Maggie’s other adult daughter, to serve as a volunteer nurse, along with some of the other women in the story.
As those of us living today can attest, the current COVID pandemic certainly has dominated our lives, but is not the only thing going on for most of us. There are other things taking our energy and attention: our jobs or the lack thereof, finances, an election, family joys and issues, and our children’s education, to name just a few.
The same holds true when it comes to the typhoid fever epidemic in Blaineton. People continue to live other aspects of their lives. Thus, we find Eli dealing with changes in the staff at The Register. Carson deciding to chase a dream. Lydia announcing that she is pregnant. Frankie’s beau, Patrick, being mustered out of the army, which means a marriage looms on the horizon. Two new characters falling in love. And Maggie, who must decide whether she wishes to run for Town Council. It’s clear that others want her to do so, but does she want to do it? Thus, in words that Maggie would understand, she needs to discern where is she being called. After all, a woman running for office at a time when women cannot even vote is… well, kind of crazy.
One final note: My plan has been to end the series somewhere in 1865, probably some months after Lincoln’s assassination. I would like to spin Maggie’s now-adult daughters off into their own series. Indeed, some of that is starting in the new novel. Why would I start telling her daughters’ stories? Well, the last quarter of the 19th century is full of issues and storylines that are still with us in the early 21st century. However, letting go of Maggie and Eli is going to be tough for me. After all, I love them. They’re good friends. But when the time is right, I’m pretty sure the characters will tell me that they are ready to “retire.”
As for next week, who knows what I’ll talk about? Maybe the election of 1864. Although I’m kind of sick of elections, at least this one will be in another era. No internet! No phones! No TV! No radio! Just newspapers, folks. Just newspapers! As the theme from the old TV show “Gilligan’s Island” says, “It’s primitive as can be.”
Until then, stay focused, stay centered, and love one another. Really. Love one another, despite the politics.
Janet R. Stafford
Photo from https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1592243
Allow me to be honest, times are just flat out tough for Maggie, Eli, and their friends. They live in 1860s USA, an era during which life presented plenty of challenges even in the best of times.
Come to think of it, things have not changed all that much, have they? The big issues present in the newly born United States of the 1770s came to a head in the 1860s and continue to beset us today. Sometimes I feel as if we’re a big dysfunctional family. We will not acknowledge that 1) we have serious problems, and 2) we need to work together to make our relationships better. I suspect and fear that until we do, nothing is going to change.
The story in A Good Community kicks off when Mary and Addie Brooks, two homeless, Black teenagers, join the family at Greybeal House and are informally adopted by Nate and Emily. However, when Maggie and Emily attempt to enroll the girls in Blaineton’s school, they are told the school is only for white children. While there once had been a school for children of color on Water Street, this now has been officially closed. Why? So many people in the Black community had moved away at the start of the war that the town decided it was not cost effective to maintain a separate school. At the same time, they decided that children of color would not be admitted to the main school.
Yes, that sort of nonsense did happen. The truth is that segregated schools still exist in New Jersey. These days it is due mainly to where people live. And, since we have local school districts rather than school systems organized via county or even by the state, this has an impact on the quality of the education students in each district receive. Clearly, my state needs to address the situation better, but sadly it’s also one that is easy to ignore. Changing things, making things more equitable, means more expense. And this of course brings up arguments about cost effectiveness. Thus, poorer school districts, which have large Black populations, still struggle to provide their children with a good education.
Back to the story. Faced with the problem of how to educate the Brooks sisters, Emily, Maggie, and friends brainstorm and decide to start a new school, called the Greybeal Academy of Practical Studies. Things look promising at first – until the Irish immigrant Brennan family asks to enroll their children in the school, too. The issue? Maggie had assured industrialist Josiah Norton, who now sits on the town’s School Board, that the school is solely for children of color. However, the Brennan children live far enough from the town that they must board somewhere if they are to get an education. Knowing that the children would not be able to find rooms in the town, the Academy’s leadership decides to move ahead. They admit the Brennan children and provide them with room and board.
Long story short, all this blows up and eventually becomes deadly. A fire allegedly is started up on Water Street, but quickly spreads into Blaineton proper. The town’s population now must work together to fight the fire. NOTE: This was not an easy thing to do! The town may have had a fire brigade with a pump wagon, but firefighting techniques in general were limited to throwing buckets of water to stop a fire’s spread. Also, house construction of the era easily allowed houses to get swallowed by flames.
After the conflagration has been extinguished, the town’s people now must undertake a new task. They need to face the issues that led to the fire. At this point, Maggie suddenly finds herself thrust into the public as she attempts to lead the town’s people through the process of constructive healing. And this just might be a call for her to enter public service.
Since I’m still working on A Balm in Gilead, I need a little extra time think through a summary of the story. It is there (obviously, I wrote a whole book) but as I work on the first revision, I find myself rearranging some of the scenes – and maybe doing a little cutting, as well. I just need a bit of time to think things through so I can write a summary next week and conclude our walk through the “Maggie-verse.”
Stay well, friends. Take care. Be kind. Be patient. And VOTE!
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder