Book Review – Gilded Suffragists

Gilded Suffragists
Johanna Neuman
NYU Press
Publication Date: September 5th 2017



“New York City’s elite women who turned a feminist cause into a fashionable revolution – In the early twentieth century over two hundred of New York’s most glamorous socialites joined the suffrage movement. Their names–Astor, Belmont, Rockefeller, Tiffany, Vanderbilt, Whitney and the like–carried enormous public value. These women were the media darlings of their day because of the extravagance of their costume balls and the opulence of the French couture clothes, and they leveraged their social celebrity for political power, turning women’s right to vote into a fashionable cause. Although they were dismissed by critics as bored socialites “trying on suffrage as they might the latest couture designs from Paris,” these gilded suffragists were at the epicenter of the great reforms known collectively as the Progressive Era. From championing education for women, to pursuing careers, and advocating for the end of marriage, these women were engaged with the swirl of change that swept through the streets of New York City. Johanna Neuman restores these women to their rightful place in the story of women’s suffrage. Understanding the need for popular approval for any social change, these socialites used their wealth, power, social connections and style to excite mainstream interest and to diffuse resistance to the cause. In the end, as Neuman says, when change was in the air, these women helped push women’s suffrage over the finish line.” ~ via Goodreads

I need to be honest… this book is not generally something that I would read. I tend to find that a lot of history/non-fiction type books can get a bit tedious and boring. That said, this was not the case with Gilded Suffragists. I found the detail to be incredibly fascinating. I am sure Johanna Neuman’s delivery has everything to do with that.

That said, Johanna Neuman has definitely done her homework in Gilded Suffragists. The incredible amount of historical detail really places the reader back into the early twentieth century alongside these courageous – and exceedingly extravagant – women. You really learn to appreciate the commitment of these early socialites who took their celebrity and power to make lasting changes in their communities, even when faced with dismissal and ridicule. You also realize that social status was resourcefully used as a tool to drive these positive changes. From helping immigrants and the poor, improving education, and all the way to voting rights of women, these ladies brought together in their elite clubs fought against their stereotypes to make a real difference.

This title is incredibly relevant today’s politics. I’ve heard so many people criticize that celebrities have no place in politics and social issues. Gilded Suffragists demonstrates exactly why people who have social power not only have the right to speak up but further validates our necessity for today’s celebrities to use their voices. We need them. They can be louder than the rest of us. They have access to far more resources.

I can easily see Gilded Suffragists becoming part of curriculum, so we (students) may have a better – broader – understanding of the history of women’s rights to vote. It is much to easy too gloss over the topic as is and subsequently take the women’s right to vote for granted. To be frank, I can’t recall learning much if anything about the fight for women to be able to vote. Perhaps, too, the notoriety and familiarity of these women, even if just by surname, may connect with young people today. Better yet, maybe more celebrities could be driven to find inspiration in Tiffany, Astor, Whitney, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and the many others who proved what social status can drive.

I am giving Gilded Suffragists, 4 courageous stars!

Thank you NetGalley and NYU Press for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

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