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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Interview: Ann Bausum

bk_Bausum_CourageClothWith Courage and Cloth: Win­ning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote
Ann Bausum
Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, 2004

inter­view by Vic­ki Palmquist

You state that you weren’t taught women’s his­to­ry in school. (Nei­ther was I. I remem­ber read­ing and re-read­ing the few biogra­phies in the library about Mol­ly Pitch­er, Clara Bar­ton, and Flo­rence Nightin­gale.) When you went look­ing for infor­ma­tion for With Courage and Cloth, how did you start?

I start­ed by vis­it­ing the places where the his­to­ry hap­pened. I went to Seneca Falls. I returned to the Sewall-Bel­mont House so that I could study it with adult eyes (hav­ing met suf­frage leader Alice Paul there when I was a child). I tracked down the loca­tion of the Nation­al Woman’s Par­ty at the time of the pick­ets and retraced the steps suf­frag­ists made on their dai­ly protest march­es to the near­by White House. I climbed on the base of the stat­ue to Lafayette, as women had done in 1918, and dis­cov­ered what it felt like to be perched just above the grounds of Lafayette Park on this slant­ed foun­da­tion. All of these things gave me the spa­tial ground­ing I need­ed to bet­ter under­stand the accounts of his­to­ry that I began to devour and study. It always helps to put your­self in the places and spaces of the peo­ple you’re try­ing to bring to life.

With Courage and Cloth was the third book you had pub­lished. Since then, you’ve had nine more books pub­lished. How has your process changed? If you wrote With Courage and Cloth today, would you approach it dif­fer­ent­ly?

bk_BausumDinosaurMany of the tech­niques I start­ed using for With Courage and Cloth remain at the foun­da­tion of my research and writ­ing process. I still trav­el to the places I’m writ­ing about when­ev­er pos­si­ble. I did my first research in the Library of Con­gress for this book, and I con­tin­ue to return there when­ev­er top­ics fit the col­lec­tions. I con­tin­ue to do exten­sive pho­to research on top­ics, some­thing I’d begun with my first book, Drag­on Bones and Dinosaur Eggs. I began orga­niz­ing my research on note cards with my third book, which I still do, even though it is a painful (lit­er­al­ly) and time-con­sum­ing process. So in many ways I enhanced and honed my writ­ing process through With Courage and Cloth. If I took up this top­ic with fresh eyes, I sus­pect I’d find myself on a famil­iar research road map.

There’s so much to write about on this top­ic, many approach­es to take. How do you devel­op cri­te­ria for nar­row­ing down your con­tent?

I write about what inter­ests me and what I think is impor­tant. I write about what hasn’t been writ­ten about before. I write with con­text so that some­one young can step into the past and not feel dis­ori­ent­ed. Although I write non­fic­tion, I think of myself as a storyteller—a sto­ry­teller where all the con­tent is true. So when I write, I’m con­struct­ing a nar­ra­tive that not only has to make sense and be accu­rate; it has to be engag­ing. I can’t let tan­gents dis­tract us from the tra­jec­to­ry of our sto­ry. Even favorite facts and side-sto­ries have to be left out, if they don’t con­tribute to the for­ward momen­tum. (Leav­ing things out is painful, but it’s part of the job.) I sus­pect that my process is akin to the process of edit­ing a film, where favorite scenes end up on the cut­ting room floor because they don’t con­tribute to the over­all sto­ry. Or it’s com­pa­ra­ble to build­ing a house where you have to keep the tim­bers in bal­ance.

In the end, I’m writ­ing for myself and the girl I was at 10 or 12 or maybe 14. And I’m writ­ing for the young peo­ple I meet dur­ing author vis­its to schools. I keep the read­er in mind and try to con­struct a sto­ry that sat­is­fies me at my core and will, I hope, inspire a new gen­er­a­tion of read­ers to love his­to­ry and feel empow­ered to take action in their own lives.

From the ear­ly chap­ters of your book, you include women’s suf­frage and the efforts to end slav­ery as often over­lap­ping. In your choic­es on focus­ing the nar­ra­tive, why did you decide to include the anti-slav­ery move­ment?

I found that I couldn’t iso­late one of these efforts from the oth­er. The two caus­es were linked in his­to­ry, and so they had to be linked in my chron­i­cle. Although the link­age might seem inci­den­tal before the Civ­il War, it became crit­i­cal after­wards because it helped to divide the woman’s suf­frage move­ment. There were peo­ple, such as Lucy Stone, who took com­fort in the grant­i­ng of vot­ing rights to for­mer male slaves, but there were oth­ers, such as Susan B. Antho­ny and Eliz­a­beth Cady Stan­ton, who resent­ed the omis­sion of women from the 14th and 15th Amend­ments. In order to under­stand why we end­ed up with two woman suf­frage orga­ni­za­tions after the Civ­il War, we have to under­stand how the pre-war alliance of activists was shak­en by this post-war out­come for vot­ing rights.

Your descrip­tion of the 1913 suf­frag­ist march in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., held at the time of the Pres­i­den­tial Inau­gu­ra­tion, cul­mi­nates with spec­ta­tors, near­ly 500,000 of them, pri­mar­i­ly men, inter­rupt­ing the parade in force­ful and dis­re­spect­ful ways, not stopped by police. You write that news­pa­per reports of the parade “trans­formed overnight” the suf­frag­ist move­ment into a “nation­al top­ic of dis­cus­sion.” Years after first read­ing your descrip­tion of this parade, I remem­ber it vivid­ly and think of it often when hear­ing about low vot­er turnout. What works well for you in build­ing that type of ten­sion in your nar­ra­tive?

It takes the right moments in his­to­ry. If an occa­sion held dra­ma at the time, one can rekin­dle it in the retelling. The secret is in the research. The more I know and the more I’ve seen, the bet­ter I’ll be able to bring the events to life. This is where I think my inter­est in pho­to research real­ly helps. I stud­ied every image of that parade that I could find (and it was well-doc­u­ment­ed). I vis­it­ed the route of the march. I read mul­ti­ple accounts of it—from news­pa­pers, from mem­oirs, from his­to­ri­ans. It’s detec­tive work, in a way, as if I’m recon­struct­ing a crime scene. After I’ve stud­ied the his­to­ry from all these angles, I can breathe life into a fresh por­tray­al of what tran­spired. The facts are at my fin­ger­tips, lit­er­al­ly, with note cards, and that frees my brain to share them through the lens of sto­ry­telling, dra­ma and all, as sup­port­ed by the his­tor­i­cal record.

gr_ProgramCover1913March

If all the women in this coun­try went to the vot­ing booth, it would change his­to­ry. Yet, as you wrote, “That said, vot­er participation—the prac­tice of actu­al­ly voting—has rarely been low­er. Pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, which are always the most pop­u­lar, rarely draw more than about half of eli­gi­ble vot­ers to the polls. Many cit­i­zens nev­er even reg­is­ter to vote.” What can your read­ers do to encour­age women to vote?

Read­ers can share their knowl­edge with oth­ers about how hard women fought to achieve this right, and they can lead by exam­ple. Even read­ers who are too young to vote can par­tic­i­pate in peer elec­tions, vol­un­teer with orga­ni­za­tions such as the League of Women Vot­ers, and advo­cate for fur­ther change. A few states have begun to offer or are dis­cussing poli­cies that auto­mat­i­cal­ly enroll peo­ple as vot­ers when they obtain state forms of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, such as dri­ver licens­es. These poli­cies make vot­ing a one-step process. Any­time we reduce the com­plex­i­ty of vot­ing, we encour­age vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion. Con­cerns over vot­er fraud are great­ly exag­ger­at­ed and tend to mask efforts to dis­cour­age broad vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion. Fight for the right to vote!

bk_Bausum_StonewallYour most recent book, Stonewall, is again about human beings fight­ing for their rights, in this case LGBT cit­i­zens. What ignit­ed your inter­est in human rights?

I grew up dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s, an era dri­ven by fights for human rights and social jus­tice, and I’m sure that frame­work helped to deter­mine my mind­set, helped to set my moral com­pass so that sto­ries of injus­tice res­onate for me. I have always believed in the pow­er of peo­ple to effect change, whether it’s through sci­ence, or lead­er­ship, or social action. I grew up in the South dur­ing the time of inte­gra­tion, the daugh­ter of for­ward-think­ing par­ents, and so the quest for equal­i­ty wasn’t just an abstract con­cept to me. I couldn’t appre­ci­ate the dimen­sions of it ful­ly at the time, but I am con­fi­dent that the strug­gle that played out in every­day ways around me helped to incul­cate me in the con­cept of equal­i­ty. It was part of the air I breathed, and it set me on a course where I’ve always felt empa­thy for sto­ries of injus­tice, and out­rage over sto­ries of injus­tice. I fight with my fin­gers. I hope my words can remind read­ers that the quest for equal­i­ty is nev­er-end­ing. Com­pla­cen­cy is not accept­able. Each gen­er­a­tion must car­ry on the fight.

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