Lisa Tetrault’s “The Myth of Seneca Falls” Named 2015 Most Original Book in U.S. Women’s History
By Shilo Rea / 412-268-6094
The Organization of American Historians (OAH) has named “The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898” by Carnegie Mellon University’s Lisa Tetrault as the winner of its inaugural Mary Jurich Nickliss Prize in U.S. Women’s History.
The award is given for the previous calendar year’s most original book — one that is path-breaking work or challenges and changes widely accepted scholarly interpretations in the field.
“If the truism is that history is written by the winners, Lisa Tetrault’s ‘The Myth of Seneca Falls’ demonstrates that choosing to write history can be a winning strategy,” OAH said in a statement. “In rendering a familiar story strikingly new, ‘The Myth of Seneca Falls’ is truly original.”
In “The Myth of Seneca Falls,” Tetrault, associate professor of history in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, demonstrates that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and their peers — who are credited with founding, defining and leading the women's suffrage campaign — gradually created and popularized the original story. She details how they created the legend during the second half of the 19th century in response to the movement's internal politics as well as racial politics following the Civil War.
“Lisa Tetrault has produced an exciting work of scholarship that transforms our understanding of how the women's suffrage movement arose. By going past a received story and uncovering what really happened, she dramatically improves our understanding of how social movements work,” said Caroline Acker, head of CMU’s Department of History.
Tetrault unearths how the founding mythology that came together in speeches and writings — most notably Stanton and Anthony's "History of Woman Suffrage" — and provided younger activists with a foundation on which to base the ongoing struggle. She also shows how it helped consolidate Stanton and Anthony's leadership against challenges from the grassroots and rival activists.
While the myth has narrowed the understanding of the early efforts to champion women's rights, Tetrault establishes how the myth of Seneca Falls itself became an influential factor in the suffrage movement, and, how the so-called founders amassed the first archive of feminism and literally invented the modern discipline of women's history.
"[Tetrault] makes the convincing case that an archival approach to this 'construction' of a canonized memory will show us how an origins myth rooted in the narrative of Seneca Falls has hovered over the story and reputation of women's suffrage ever since Stanton and Anthony wrote their 'History,'" said David Blight, professor of history at Yale University. "How and why Stanton and Anthony created their own myth of leadership as well as the progress narrative of their movement is a splendid case for how the politics of memory works in history."
The Nickliss Prize was established by Alexandra M. Nickliss to honor her mother, Mary Jurich, an immigrant who always had aspirations of receiving a college education and becoming a career woman but was constrained by historical times. Tetrault received the award at the OAH Annual Meeting in St. Louis on April 18.
Tetrault, who presented copies of “The Myth at Seneca Falls” to both Mary Jurich and Alexandra Nickliss at the annual meeting, said, “This is a great honor. A sincere thank you to the OAH and the awards committee for selecting my book for this inaugural prize.”
“The Myth of Seneca Falls” was published by the University of North Carolina Press. For more information, visit http://uncpress.unc.edu/books/T-8850.html.
Alexandra M. Nickliss (above, left), a professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the City College of San Francisco, presents the inaugural Mary Jurich Nickliss Prize in U.S. Women’s History to CMU's Lisa Tetrault (above, right) for her book "The Myth of Seneca Falls."