Present for Suffrage

acrobats holding each other up

September 19, 2019
Heather Crandall, Communication Studies

Last year, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences invited me to serve on a committee to plan Gonzaga University’s centennial celebration of the ratification of Constitutional Amendment XIX, which granted women the right to vote. I am flattered by these kinds of requests. Maybe I should not be. A more critical nose than mine would likely sniff out the gender (female), class (first-generation college student), and workplace (tenured) socialization that contributes to my immediate positive feelings about this invitation. Add my habit of impulsive decision-making, and I am at “yes” in less than a minute. To be old school (I am 50), this minute is a real minute made up of 60 seconds. These days, students talk about a minute in ways that span months, and as a communication scholar, I am constantly alive to the ways words shift meaning.

Right after my quick decision, I ran into the director of Women’s and Gender Studies and asked for all the help she could give me so that I could usefully represent the program. My colleague, a political science faculty member, congratulated me while also cautioning me not to use the word suffragette. Suffragette has negative connotations, she said, which makes sense as “ette” belittles. Noted: suffragist it is. One reason I love my job is that smart people surround me. So much is on offer to think about, and I am grateful that this is my life’s work.

My hobby these days is to keep up on intersectionality. When you are no longer a student, you have to be your own teacher, so I checked out a book from the library about intersectional communication. I flipped through and serendipitously learned about suffragists who embroidered umbrellas, something we would now post on Instagram.

Health is a newer goal of mine (see earlier reference to age), so I try to walk every day. When people talk about their exercise routines, they often mention they listen to podcasts. Okay ... I try a podcast. I ask Alexa for a popular podcast, and “she” suggested “Stuff you Missed in History Class.” The fascinating podcast told about a circus performer named Katie Sandwina who was a strongwoman with Barnum and Bailey’s Circus circa 1911. She could lift horses and canons; she could snap chains. She easily bested strongmen and wowed audiences for years. The Library of Congress archive has a picture of her posing for a photograph in a fancy white leotard holding her husband in one arm and her two grown sons in her other arm. I don’t think I could lift my one grown son with both arms. Suffrage? My attention snaps back as the podcast narrators turned to Sandwina’s women’s suffrage activism. Barnum and Bailey’s Circus had a Women’s Equal Rights Society. Apparently, Sandwina was especially influential because she was both strong and feminine, a both/and situation that many still struggle to recognize today. This was beginning to be like what happens when you learn a new word and then hear it everywhere. I made another note for Centennial planning.

I teach Analyzing Public Texts and Discourse wherein students choose something of consequence to analyze. Last semester, a public relations major chose to study pro-America propaganda nestled in the Captain America movie. I searched for a good resource for him. The video I found had everything I was looking for in an introduction to Edward Bernays – including women’s suffrage? The clip tells the story of Bernays’ genius for swaying American public opinion in the 1920s. For example, to expand the cigarette market to women, Bernays influenced that season’s fashion color to be the same green as the Lucky Strike package. He threw a green gala and invited the influencers of the day; he planted women smoking “torches of freedom” in the suffrage marches, linking women’s smoking with women’s equality. 

According to Cultural Studies theorist Stuart Hall, traces of the past show up in the present. My Centennial celebration notes continue to grow as I read academic scholarship, listen to faculty around me, and attend to the political in popular culture.