Remember The Ladies examines love and lobbying in Gilded Age Washington
The fight to win American women the right to vote spanned more than seven decades and was bitterly opposed by many—mostly by men, but also by some women, as Gina L. Mulligan’s debut Remember The Ladies reminds us.
The struggle ended in August 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by a margin of one vote. Inspired by the letter that swayed an anti-suffragist to change history by voting “Aye”, Mulligan nonetheless decided to take the reader back to an earlier time when the outcome was still far from certain. Remember The Ladies places the reader at the midpoint of the suffrage struggle, looking back at an 1887 vote on a proposed Sixteenth Amendment that could have given American women the vote during the Gilded Age.
Mulligan’s fictional protagonist is Amelia Cooke, who, interestingly, stands at a certain remove from the campaign for women’s suffrage. Mulligan chose to make Amelia a lobbyist, exercising power in a more confrontational way than the mother who, in 1920, wrote to her son to “be a good boy” and vote for ratification. Amelia, who graduates from an orphanage into factory work, learns an early lesson about the value of power and influence, and sets out to become the apprentice of Sam Ward, a real-life lobbyist famed for his gourmet dinners.
Sam Ward was also a poet. “My favorite story of Sam Ward,” says Mulligan, “is his lifelong friendship with Henry Longfellow. They were wonderful friends who corresponded and visited each other often.” Mulligan recommends King of the Lobby by Kathryn Allamong Jacob as a resource for those wishing to know more about this early lobbyist.
By the time of the 1887 vote, Sam Ward has died and Mulligan’s fictional lobbyist Amelia is a seasoned practitioner who has eschewed love and family life in favor of her career. She moves in a cynical world, epitomized by her antagonist—and former lover—Edward Stillman, a ruthless politician intent on destroying the suffragists’ hopes of success. Opposition also comes from women, notably those involved with the suffrage movement who oppose the use of a female lobbyist.
Mulligan’s research led her into a Washington removed from us by time and yet strangely familiar. “Researching Washington history was enlightening because so much of what I found mirrored what we see today,” she says. “Although fictionalized, most of the underhanded antics [in my story] are based on facts.”
The main challenge Mulligan faced was to “create a believable woman taking on the role of a lobbyist in the male-dominated arena of the late 1800s.” She gives Amelia a background that teaches her what powerlessness feels like and drives home the lesson that political power can be used to make changes on behalf of the weak. She also keeps the double standards of the time, with regard to the private conduct of men and women in society, at the forefront of the reader’s awareness. “In that era, most of the women who succeeded at such a high level were driven, single-minded, and didn’t have strong personal lives . . . As the story progresses, Amelia becomes more aware of how much she’s giving up for the cause and must decide if she can continue to sacrifice or must pass on the baton.”
It’s not for this article to reveal the twist by which Amelia eventually reconciles the competing demands of politics and nineteenth-century womanhood, but for Mulligan such a reconciliation is part of a larger message. “We know the big names like Lucrecia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul,” she notes. “But there were thousands of women . . . who we’ll never know by name.” And each of them, we are reminded, found her own solution to the pressures of political life—and some, like the 1920 mother whose letter persuaded her son to support the women’s vote, achieved great results via subtle means. Mulligan’s hope is that her protagonist “honors all women for their varied and necessary roles in history.”
About the contributor: Jane Steen was born in England, lived in Belgium for 16 years, then spent 19 years in the US before returning to England. She’s held corporate writing jobs covering areas as diverse as translating technical articles for aerospace magazines and the US government, providing editorial guidance for non-English-speaking lawyers, drafting contracts, writing fundraising appeals, and creating marketing copy for realtors. Her passion for literature, particularly fiction with 19th-century settings, eventually led her to write and publish her own novels. Jane is an active member of the Alliance of Independent Authors and the Historical Novel Society.