Anne B. Gass’s fast-paced and humorous new novel We Demand: The Suffrage Road Trip is based on the true story of an epic cross-country journey that took place in 1915.
The unlikely—and until now unsung—heroines are Ingeborg Kindstedt and Maria Kindberg, the middle-aged lesbian Swedish immigrants who volunteered to make the harrowing drive from San Francisco to demand that Congress and the president approve voting rights for women.
No one gave women the right to vote. They had to fight for it; over and over and over again.
We Demand: The Suffrage Road Trip is just one example of the extraordinary lengths to which women had to go. It’s based on an actual trip that took place in 1915, when four women left San Francisco for Washington, D.C., on a desperate and dangerous mission to demand an amendment to the U.S. Constitution enfranchising women.
The story unfolds through the eyes of Ingeborg Kindstedt and Maria Kindberg, middle-aged lesbians and Swedish immigrants who own the car, do all the driving and fix what goes wrong. The roads are terrible, and the weather is worse. They lose their way in a trackless Nevada desert and get stuck in the mud in Kansas, among many other adventures.
I fell in love with Ingeborg and Maria when I retraced their route in 2015, and was astonished to find they’d gotten so little recognition for all they did. It was likely because they were older, working class women who spoke accented English. They didn’t fit the profile of the young, well-educated, modern American woman that suffrage leaders were trying to promote.
We Demand is a thoroughly researched tribute to Ingeborg and Maria, and to the grit and determination of the suffrage movement that launched the trip. Humorous and nail-biting by turns, it seamlessly joins this rich history with an unflinching look at the issues that swirled in and around the suffrage movement; racism, classism, misogyny and xenophobia.
We Demand: The Suffrage Road Trip
Two days later they were crawling through mud on their way to Hutchinson. They’d left the good weather behind them in Colorado; it had been raining since they’d arrived in Dodge City the night before, and the roads were getting steadily worse. Maria tried to steer around the potholes, but with so many, it was hard to guess which one looked least likely to swallow the car. They’d pulled Emilie’s top up and fastened down the windows, but inside they were still damp and cold.
Earlier, Ingeborg and Maria had teased Sara about a piece they’d seen in the Pueblo paper, titled “Motherhood Strike is Suffrage Threat.” Sara had been quoted as saying that many women in non-suffrage states “will deny themselves the privilege of motherhood until they receive the vote.”
“What does that mean?” said Maria. “Is the CU against marriage?”
“Maybe they’ll simply refuse to share their husband’s bed,” guessed Ingeborg.
Sara snorted. “That reporter! So smug. He was needling me about what would happen if Congress refused to take action on the amendment. Suddenly I remembered an ancient Greek play, Lysistrata, written by Aristophanes. Do you know it?” she asked.
They didn’t, so she went on to tell the story of an Athenian woman, Lysistrata, who vowed to end war by persuading the women of her city to refuse sex with their men.
“A boycott!” said Ingeborg, “Or a man-cott.…”
“Did she win them over?” asked Maria.
“Yes, in the end she did,” said Sara, “but not before the men paraded their discomfort all over the stage.”
“So this is the CU’s new policy?” asked Maria.
“It will be hard to enforce,” said Ingeborg. “Especially those young, pretty suffragists.” She turned around to peer at Sara. “What about Erskine? Would he be an exception?”
Sara laughed. “No, it isn’t the CU’s new policy, and I’ll thank you not to plant the idea in Alice Paul’s mind. If ever I see Erskine again, which I sometimes doubt, I fully intend to share his bed.”
“You’d need the National, too,” said Maria, referring to their rival suffrage organization. “They’re much larger than us.”
“I wish you could have seen the look on that reporter’s face,” said Sara, laughing. “For a moment there I had him. You could see him thinking, if Alice Paul could have us driving across the country on this mission, and campaigning against the Democrats, she just might be capable of organizing a national sex boycott. I could tell he was calculating whether his wife would go along with it, and how much he’d suffer.”
That had led to a lengthy and mirthful discussion of just how such a campaign could be organized. They all agreed that Alice Paul, who appeared to have no interest in sex at all and was instead married to the suffrage movement, would be the natural leader. The Democrats would complain bitterly to Carrie Chapman Catt, the National’s president, who would issue denouncements of the sex boycott to the press and encourage her members to satisfy their men at every opportunity.
This in turn would lead to some reduction of the National’s effectiveness, as their members were occupied in the bedroom and by the inevitable babies that would result. They disagreed whether this would be beneficial or not to the CU and the federal amendment. Sara thought perhaps it would be, since the uproar would focus more attention on women’s demand for political rights. Ingeborg agreed that it would be good to distract the National’s organizers, since then there would be fewer state campaigns and they could get women to work on the federal amendment. Maria thought it would make men so angry it would backfire altogether and they’d force women back into the home. “They’d call out the National Guard,” said Ingeborg.
But that was hours ago, and they were long past ready for this day to be over. They’d taken a chance and opted for the shortcut through Nickerson and were now regretting that decision. It was pitch dark, and the cold, relentless rain thrummed down on the car’s roof, the air thick and swampy. Emilie’s headlamps peered no more than five paces ahead of them, which forced Maria to drive at a walking pace. The mud was the real worry, though. In some sections it came halfway up Emilie’s tires and she had to plunge through one hole after another. Maria clung to the steering wheel, grim-faced, as Emilie churned along, slipping and sliding. They rode silently, listening to the sound of the engine laboring, all of them fluent now in the language of pistons and sparks and alert to any sign of distress. No one else was traveling this late at night, and aside from the occasional farmhouse they were utterly alone.
Without warning Emilie’s nose dropped and there was a sickening slide into deep muck. Her engine wailed as Maria tried first to jam forward through the mudhole, then to reverse backward over the lip they’d just come down. No luck. After a death rattle Emilie quit for good. Water began seeping through the floorboards as Maria ground on the starter, but the engine wouldn’t catch.