A New Book by Jasmine A. Stirling
Jasmine returns to grace these e-pages with her story of the woman who led the struggle to give American women the right to vote in the early 20th century. Yes, the twentieth century, just a hundred years ago. Yet to this day, the same kinds of issues continue to plague this so-called enlgihtened country.
But who was Carrie Chapman Catt, and what exactly happened 103 years ago this month? Jasmine writes:
“As a child, Carrie Chapman Catt asked a lot of questions: How many stars are in the sky? Do germs have personalities? And why can’t Mama vote? Catt’s curiosity led her to college, on to a career in journalism, and finally to becoming the president of The National American Woman Suffrage Association. Catt knew the movement needed a change, and she set to work mobilizing women (and men) across the nation to dare to question a woman’s right to vote.
“On August 18, 1920, Catt pinned a yellow rose to her dress and waited while lawmakers in Tennessee cast their deciding votes whether or not to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. After a seventy-year campaign, had women finally won the right to vote?”
Dare to Question, just published, is Jasmine A. Stirling’s suspenseful retelling of the dramatic final “yea” that changed the history of women’s rights. The book brings this profound and quite moving moment in American history to life for young readers—and perhaps for a few older readers as well. You won’t believe it!
The Fictional Café Interview with the Author
FC: When did you first get the idea to write this book, and why?
JAS: In spring 2017, while driving to meet a friend for brunch, I heard on the radio how the 19th Amendment had been won by a single vote: history had been changed by a young lawmaker. How and why he came to vote “aye” that morning in 1920 is a remarkable story; I was shocked that I had never heard it before. I was also moved to tears. When I arrived for brunch, I told my friend, “I know what my next book is going to be about.”
FC: How interesting. We just never know when or where inspiration is going to strike next. What’s the most interesting or surprising thing you learned while research and writing it?
JAS: How do I choose? As I delved into the details of suffrage culture from 1900-1920, I discovered that these women—typically depicted as boring, dour, and stern—were wildly creative rebels, Machiavellian geniuses, and terrifying backroom bosses. Carrie’s national suffrage organization, The National American Woman Suffrage Association, or NAWSA, exploded with excitement and drive. They staged plays, recorded music, dressed up as Greek goddesses, danced in the streets, rode elephants, published books and newspapers in dozens of languages, created complex and formidable alliances, horse-traded with Congress and President Wilson, and were just generally dazzling and fabulous. What’s more, nearly all of the women who led the suffrage movement lived, loved, and spent their lives with women. They created a world in which they enjoyed tremendous bonds of friendship and explored the limits of what women could be and do. I believe it was, for the women who lived through it, a magical time—one that is quite unique and has been minimized and overlooked in American history.
FC: As you point out, the United States, of whom we sing “land of the free, home of the brave,” nevertheless has a long, sordid history of oppression and inequities. As Carrie Catt herself realizes in your book, change is hard. Why do you think it’s so difficult to open people’s minds and hearts?
JAS: I don’t know why, but I do know that every person living has a role to play in making humanity more human and just. All individuals, all cultures, and all countries, can do better. Here is one of my favorite Carrie Chapman Catt quotes of all time:
“What is femiinism? A worldwide revolt against all artificial barriers which laws and customs interpose between women and human freedom. It is born of the instinct within every natural woman’s soul that God designed her as the equal, the co-worker, the comrade of the men of her family, and not as their slave, or servant, or dependent, or plaything.
“The movement has no leaders, no organization. It is an evolution, like enlightenment and democracy. Here and there societies have made organized efforts to push some phase of these great world movements and have disbanded when their tasks have been accomplished; but the great movements of which they have been a small part go on. They are not confined to one land or to one age, but continue through the centuries.”
FC: That’s inspirational. You come from a family of creatives, but your writing and artistic representation are uniquely your own. How did your creative interests come together for you in writing illustrated children’s books?
JAS: I was first inspired to write picture book biographies after reading Enormous Smallness, a delightful biography of E.E. Cummings by Matthew Burgess. Later, I read Amy Novesky’s tragic and beautiful Cloth Lullaby, a picture book biography of Louise Bourgeois.
But since college, I have been fascinated by the idea of making complex topics more accessible and have dreamt of helping people get a taste, and a way into, literary and cultural ideas that might otherwise feel intimidating or dull. I’ve been dismayed that we don’t use imagery more often to enrich the nonfiction reading experience. For years I have followed the careers of numerous essayists and listened devotedly to podcasts like This American Life. When I discovered how rich, lyrical, and entertaining picture book biographies could be, and how beautifully illustrated the best ones were, I fell in love. I had been thinking about, and interested in, what I am doing now for decades before I began to write. That children can experience these books, often with parents and teachers, and become inspired by new ideas, is wonderful. But my books, and many picture book biographies, are not just for children. They are books anyone can enjoy.
FC: Your first book, A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, was clearly intended to inspire young girls to follow their artistic dreams. Do you see yourself, with these books, as a change agent for women’s rights as was Carrie Catt for the everyday American woman?
JAS: I don’t think of myself as a changemaker so much as someone who aims to create delight. I hope my books inspire a love of culture, learning, art, exploration, and history to readers of all ages and identities.
FC: Indeed. Everyone, regardless of age, can learn from both of your books. So, it’s been 103 years since the 19th Amendment and women’s right to vote became law. What progress has American society made in suffrage, and what remains to be done? Are you optimistic?
JAS: We are currently experiencing a backlash against women’s rights in this country and worldwide. It is time for everyone to get involved and fight back: with funding, with letters like the one written by Febb Burn (read Dare to Question to learn more about it), with articles, with social media posts, with protests, at the polls, everywhere. As Carrie said immediately after the 19th Amendment was ratified:
“Progress is calling to you to make no pause. Act!”
FC: Across the many forms of discrimination, in your opinion why has equality so often been centered on the right to vote? Do you believe women, able to vote, have made a difference in America’s governance?
JAS: It would be difficult to understate the difference in the status of women at the turn of the 19th century and today. Imagine a world in which women are not permitted to be on juries or even, if married, appear in court. In which all judges and lawmakers are men. In which a woman, once married, is immediately, as a matter of policy, dismissed from her job as Carrie was after her first marriage, earning 50-25% or less than her male counterparts during her career. In which domestic violence against a wife is legal. In which a husband, upon his death or divorce, can claim sole custody or place a woman’s children in the hands of another guardian without her permission. In which women are barred from educational opportunities and most professional jobs.
Every group ever to be included in the electorate has made an enormous difference in American’s governance. Powerful forces still work to corrupt democracy, and many laws do not reflect the will of the people. But without the vote, marginalized groups have no voice.
At the same time, Carrie knew that attaining the vote was not the primary purpose of the suffrage movement. The vote was, first and foremost, a symbol of dignity. A symbol of the personhood of women. It was the first phase of a feminist transformation that will go on for centuries.
Finally, the suffrage movement was about much more than fighting forces “out there.” When women joined “The Cause,” when they dared to speak on street corners and compose operas and oversee campaigns and write plays and dance in the streets, they experienced an internal transformation that was as just as—if not more profound than— winning the right to cast a ballot. Suddenly, their lives were larger. The act of fighting for suffrage—of participating in a whole range of activities that women had been raised to believe were vulgar and unladylike, beyond the scope of their abilities, and symbolic of the perception of neglecting their duties as daughters and mothers, was radical. These radical acts, spurred on by changes brought about by WWI, forever changed what the world believed women could be and do.
FC: Well spoken. In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
JAS: Dare to Question has gone through countless iterations. It turned out to be about much more than just the Febb Burn letter which secured ratification of the 19th Amendment, and for that, I am happy and grateful.
FC: Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
JAS: My grandmother, Jacqueline Rochester, and my grandfather, Hank Keneally, are visual artists who spent their lives obsessed with creating fine art. Parents wonder how to instill passion in their children. If you model passion and commitment and focus your energies on projects that align with your deepest values, your children will do the same.
At the same time, I think it was difficult for the children of both of my artistic grandparents, who often saw their parent “disappear” into an all-encompassing world which didn’t include them. Creative pursuits can easily devolve into ego and driving ambition, not passion. I try not to take my writing too seriously. And most writers won’t admit this, but lots of things that come with having books in the world can be both burdensome and maddening.
FC: Persuade a male to read your book in fifty words or less.
JAS: Read the first few sentences and see if you can put it down.
FC: A great reply! Thank you for your time and for your book, Jasmine.
Jasmine A. Stirling (she/her) is the award-winning author of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021), a Mighty Girl Best Book of the Year and winner of the IPNE Book Award. It is currently being translated to Mandarin. A frequent contributor to FC over the years, she lives in an old house in San Francisco with her spouse, two daughters, and an absurdly adorable dog. Follow her on Instagram at @jasmine.a.stirling.author, and learn more at www.jasmineastirling.com.
Photo by Candice Novak
Udayana Lugo is a self-taught illustrator of mixed heritage. Having worked as a designer of many varied things, from jewelery to auto parts, from furniture to whole interiors, she still does all that but also illustrates children’s books, which are her true passion. She and her husband have lived in Mexico, Italy and England, but they call British Columbia their home along with their two kids. When not working on a book, you can find her walking her dog or baking something with her children.