Getting the Vote: Novel Focuses on Suffragette-Era Women
"Politics are bad for women and women are bad for politics."
That's what North Carolina legislators believed in August 1920, when they sent this telegram across the mountains to the Tennessee General Assembly:
"Assure you we will not ratify the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. Respectfully request measure not be forced upon the people of North Carolina."
Tennessee didn't agree. On Aug. 18, 1920 -- by only one vote -- Tennessee made history by becoming the 36th and final state required to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote. North Carolina finally did ratify the amendment -- in 1971, the second to last state in the Union to do so.
On Thursday, June 19, at 4 p.m. at The Country Bookshop in downtown Southern Pines, author Dawn Shamp will share the story of that turbulent time of great social change when she discusses her debut novel, "On Account of Conspicuous Women," a portrait of four suffragette-era women living in Roxboro.
Shamp was inspired to write her book by an old photograph of her paternal grandmother, Lizzie Adair ("Grimma" Lizzie), a woman she never knew except from stories her father told her when she was young.
"She was an audacious local lion, a larger-than-life character," Shamp says.
Like the character Bertie in Shamp's novel, "Grimma" Lizzie was a "hello-girl" (operator for the telephone company) and sold boiled peanuts on the side. She was the only woman in Person County to own a Model-T and was staunch in her support for female suffrage.
Shamp set the story in Roxboro, the "Courteous City," where she was born and raised.
"Oftentimes, when we read stories about major issues and pivotal times in history they tend to be set in the larger cities, like Boston or New York City," she says. "I wanted to explore what it might've been like for women who lived in a small town and seemingly removed from the larger issues -- particularly from the perspective of a conspicuous woman like Bertie and how the coming changes affected her as well as those around her. I can't say for sure, but I really think suffrage was harder on women in small towns than for women in big cities."
Shamp did extensive research for her novel set between 1919 and 1921, and was meticulous about authenticity.
"The detail is just fascinatinghome remedies, farm lore, fancy dinner recipes, fashion and even instruction on the operation of the early Model-T," says Lynn York, author of "The Piano Teacher," "It is historical fiction at its finest."
Shamp doesn't sentimentalize the setting or skirt ugly issues such as poverty and racism. She acknowledges that suffrage activist Alice Paul of the National Woman's Party overlooked racial injustice in order to push gender equality. If women got the vote, they were expected to go to the ballot box to support segregation and Jim Crow.
While researching, Shamp came across a collection of NWP's letters, and in her novel quotes one from an African-American woman who was refused registration because "I am colored, as have other colored folk in my county of Durham. The chair of this board requires all colored to tell him the correct number of licorice bits in a jar. Please tell me how I can register and vote by mail before registration ends."
The publication of her novel was not planned to coincide with a history-making election year, although Shamp says she's delighted by the timing.
"Without a doubt, this is an amazing time in our history," she says. "And, I'm really excited about this upcoming election. I'm hoping to do my part in encouraging folks to get out and vote."
Shamp, who doesn't consider herself a political person, says she's always been sheepish about not registering to vote until she was about 30 years old. But the author has now found a "kindred partnership" in the League of Women Voters.
In honor of this amazing election year and the suffrage struggle that made it and her book possible, Shamp has teamed up with the League to provide on-site voter registration during her book tour before the North Carolina primary.
In recognition of her efforts, the League of Women Voters of Orange, Durham and Chatham Counties presented her with the "Making Democracy Work" Award with the citation: "Her historical novel provides us with a renewed appreciation of the suffragist's achievement and the power of our right to vote."
At Thursday's "Meet the Author" event, Linda Tableman from the League of Women Voters of Moore County will join Shamp to discuss how to register to vote, as well as providing information about the League, a nonpartisan political organization, formed in 1920 to encourage informed and active participation in government. The LWV, one of America's most trusted grassroots organizations, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy.
Dawn Shamp began taking creative writing classes in the early 1990s. She received an "Emerging Artist Grant" in literature from the Durham Arts Council for 2001-2002, which allowed her to attend the Sewanee Writers' Conference. Even though she did not have a college degree, her writing and independent study enabled her to gain admission to Spalding University in Louisville, Ky., where she earned a master's degree in fine arts in fiction. She received a fellowship to Vermont Studio Center, the largest artists' and writers' residency program in the U.S., where she completed her novel.
Shamp lives in Durham with her husband of 13 years, Jim, a former reporter for The Herald-Sun and now news and publications editor for the N.C. Biotechnology Center.
For information about the Meet the Author Event, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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