The American suffrage movement and the novels of Marietta Holley and Elia Peattie as a means of cultural lobbying
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Women’s literary activity during the first two decades of the twentieth century, fuelled by the progressive spirit, served as a form of cultural lobbying through which they could articulate social and political problems and propose solutions. This article focuses on the struggle that enfranchised women by examining two long-forgotten suffrage novels, written in a period when grassroots activism, suffrage parades and house-to-house canvassing were a means of propaganda: Marietta Holley’s Samantha on the Woman Question (1913) and Elia Peattie’s The Precipice (1914). With her use of satire, Holley familiarizes her middle-class audience with women’s suffrage and politics. By presenting the plight of different women in a vernacular style, Holley addresses the older generation of anti-suffragist women, illuminating how countless unfortunate women are oppressed by a political system that does not acknowledge their presence. On the other hand, in The Precipice, Elia Peattie appeals to the younger generation of New Women, portraying the life of a twentieth-century social reformer, who tries to balance her career as a municipal housekeeper with the traditional roles and values of her day. The article argues that both novels functioned as catalysts to bring about social change at a time when, on the federal level at least, women still could not vote or hold an elected office. Thus, even before women were enfranchised, these novels influenced the beliefs and opinions of female audiences, for whom reading fiction was a favourable pastime. Without marginalizing female protagonists or blatantly alienating readers by transgressing socially accepted gender norms, these authors were able to find a middle ground, successfully creating role models who try to change society from within. By rendering the New Woman unthreatening, they challenged the ideology of separate spheres and prepared the public for the great changes ahead.