Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro
The Accidental Suffragist
By Galia Gichon
June 2021, ISBN-13: 978-1948018968, Paperback, 258 pages
A timely, provocative, and well-written historical novel, The Accidental Suffragist rings with authentic factual details woven into the fabric of the poignant story of Helen Fox and her family. Set in the lower East Side of New York City and in Washington D.C., and spanning the years 1911-1918, the book by Galia Gichon is a moving exploration of women’s rights and roles in that era told primarily through the experiences of a poor factory worker, mother and wife who sacrifices much on her way to gaining a voice in her own life. Like the best historical fiction, the book conveys verifiable true events in the context of fictional lives in a manner that makes the history up close and personal.
When the story opens, Helen Fox works all day hunched over a sewing machine in a button factory, her husband also works long factory hours, but even so they are unable to provide basic necessities for themselves and their four children. Against Helen’s wishes, their oldest daughter, Abigail, quits school at age 12 and gets a job in a factory so the family can afford to heat their cramped tenement apartment and buy food for all of them. Tragedy soon ensues.
In a chance encounter when a horrified crowd gathers while the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burns in front of them, killing 146 mostly young female garment workers, Helen meets historical personage Harriot Stanton Blatch. In real life and in the novel, Blatch is the determined daughter of one of the original suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. At the fire, Blatch exhibits great kindness to a distraught Helen and a fragile bond is created despite their class and economic differences. The brief descriptions of the historical Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the conditions that led to the workers’ deaths is poignant and powerful, revealing a shameful part of history and also acting as the catalyst for much of the fictional story that follows
A despondent Helen eventually takes a job working with Blatch and others in the suffragist movement as a kind of secretary/office worker. The extra money allows her to take better care of her family and to keep her remaining children in school. Gradually Helen becomes involved more deeply in the suffragist movement, rather to the dismay or confusion of Albert, her husband. Other historical figures such as Alice Paul are also well used in the story in a fictional way.
Through the awakening eyes of Helen, readers see inside the suffragist movement as the women struggle and risk liberty and safety in their quest for one of the most basic of democratic rights—the right to vote. By using fiction to explain the history of the suffragist movement with all its risks and physical dangers, the author avoids lecturing or merely reciting facts. Though the theme of women’s rights is always clear, the author’s voice is never strident as she lets her characters tell their story. The plot evolves in a natural way, educating and entertaining both, as readers see Helen grow from a meek, subservient woman to one who finds her voice as well as a rare courage.
The story culminates in the horrifying, often historically unknown and ignored November 1917 mistreatment and illegal confinement of thirty-three suffragist women who were arrested from their peaceful demonstrations outside the White House. The women had marched, mostly unbothered for months, hoping to convince President Woodrow Wilson to back a constitutional amendment to allow women the right to vote. However, unease due to the U.S. entry into WWI led to more aggressive action against the women. After the arrests, the women were sent to a prison workhouse in Virginia. Their families were not notified. After enduring horrid conditions and near starvation at the workhouse for ten days, the women were brutalized by male guards on what was subsequently named the “Night of Terror.”
While the historical incident was vicious, the author Galia Cichon in The Accidental Suffragist handles this with discretion. The harrowing events are not downplayed or whitewashed, but neither does Gichon engage in graphic or gratuitous descriptions of the torture and sexual abuse. However, with her attention to detail and her descriptive passages, Gichon conveys the horror these women—many of whom were well to do women not at all used to deprivations—suffered while under the control of angry, vicious prison staff. After the women hear the superintendent tell the male guards to “brutalize” the women, Gichon writes:
Helen saw Dora Lewis dragged into the dark cell opposite her cell. She couldn’t see anything but heard a hard thump against the iron rail of the bed. …She prayed it wasn’t Dora’s head causing the thump but the cries of anguish caused her to fear otherwise. She soon smelled the metallic scent of blood wafting from the cell …Helen sat shivering, from cold and fear, on her thin mattress, pulling the dank rough woolen blanket over her threadbare uniform. She waited, holding her breath, afraid to make too much noise, dread in her stomach. …
Wholly aside from its compelling and accurate history, The Accidental Suffragist is domestic fiction and story-telling at its finest. Helen and her husband, Albert, must cope with the death of their oldest child, Helen’s growing independence, their children, their marriage in crisis, and the tumultuous, often cruel world they live in. Albert and Helen are, in turn, tender with each other or headstrong in conflict. Helen is aided in all of this by a best friend, Iris, who adds a positive spark in the book with her loyalty and concern. Though the children occupy a smaller role in the story, they are none the less an important and moving addition to the tale. There are especially powerful chapters when their only son joins the military during WWI and later, when one of the daughters goes off with some suffragists to a march.
All in all, The Accidental Suffragist is an intriguing, poignant, and gripping story that takes its readers on a whirlwind ride through vital history and does so with admirable pacing, authentic world building, and well-crafted sentences, along with its sympathetic and vivid characters—and above all else, a captivating story.
The author, Galia Gichon, is a financial advisor and author of the nonfiction My Money Matters. She also teaches at Barnard College.
About the reviewer: Claire Hamner Matturro has been a newspaper reporter in Alabama, a lawyer in Florida, and has taught at Florida State University College of Law and University of Oregon School of Law. An author of seven prior mysteries and legal thrillers, she and her husband live on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Her newest book, Wayward Girls (Red Adept Publishing Aug. 2021), is with co-author Penny Koepsel. Claire remains active in writers’ and environmental groups and is an associate editor at Southern Literary Review. Visit her at www.clairematturro.com