A Discussion with Dr. Sara Egge

Greetings! For this week’s blog, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Sara Egge, an Associate Professor of History at Centre College, to talk about her award winning book, Woman Suffrage and Citizenship in the Midwest.

Q: What is your book about?

A: The book is about the woman suffrage movement in the Midwest. It examines a period from 1870 to 1920 when women became suffragists and advocated for the right to vote in that region. I focused specifically on women in the rural Midwest, examining the ways that women in small towns and on farms created political identities out of the public work they did on behalf of their communities. They became civic activists, and they built institutions like libraries, schools, post offices, public parks, churches, and other spaces in which people gathered. They raised large sums of money, and they learned how to engage successfully in political causes. From this advocacy, they developed a sophisticated argument that women deserved the right to vote not because they were necessarily equal to men (although most of them believed it in private) but because they were responsible citizens. This argument was critical after 1914, when World War I broke out in Europe. By 1917, when the United States joined the war, anti-German sentiment had risen, and this nativism inspired Midwesterners to emphasize active citizenship in which people demonstrated their patriotism and loyalty. For midwestern suffragists, World War I reshaped the context in which they fought for the ballot in profound ways. They argued successfully that the decades of community advocacy they had demonstrated was proof of their loyalty. It also helped that Germans were the largest ethnic group in the Midwest, and people grew suspicious of them as a domestic enemy. What’s more, in many states (about half of the United States), non-citizen immigrants could vote because of what was called “alien suffrage.” Alien suffrage allowed German immigrants, whom native-born Midwesterners distrusted, to vote, which further inspired a rationale that only native-born or naturalized people should vote. The World War I argument worked in the Midwest as it made people consider responsible citizenship the litmus test for the vote, not gender inequality. 

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: When I was an undergraduate at North Dakota State University, I took an independent study as a senior. I was interested in women’s history and graduate school, and I wondered what I could study if I pursued a topic beyond my undergraduate degrees. I read a book and an article each week, and with each new reading, I was struck by what previous scholars had chosen for their topics. In the case of woman suffrage, so much of the scholarship focused on the national leaders working in urban places. I understood why they made those decisions—sources existed to tell this national story—but I also wondered what was missing. In particular, I thought about my family. The national, urban story did not represent the experiences of my rural, Midwestern family. What I could find were vague references and many assumptions that rural women were uninterested, ignorant, or misinformed about women’s rights broadly. I knew that those assumptions were misguided, and I thought I could study rural women and the woman suffrage movement when no one else had.

Q: Do you think you will write another book in the future? Are there any ideas that inspire you right now?

A: I will definitely write another book in the future. My next project will explore the naturalization process and the ways it played out in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Naturalization occurred at the local and state levels until after 1906, which meant that it was pretty chaotic and uneven. People slipped through the system regularly, and I’m curious to know more about the consequences of having a system that was easy to avoid.

Q: Can you tell me more about yourself? Why did you become a history professor? What landed you at Centre College? What do you like about Centre?

A: I grew up in a small town in South Dakota. We lived about ten miles from the nearest town, which meant that I spent most of my childhood outside and at home with my two siblings. We imagined most of our games and play, which gave me an active imagination. I also had a lot of time to sit and ponder, which led me to ask questions about what I observed. I wanted to know why things were the way they were, which led to my interest in history. I also loved stories, which is another reason why I gravitated toward history as an undergraduate.

I landed at Centre College because I applied for a job, pure and simple. I had never heard of Centre before I applied, and as I proceeded through the interview process, I came to understand the high level of teaching and mentorship that takes place at this institution. I continue to cherish the opportunities to teach and mentor students as well as engage in scholarship that continues to drive my interest in history

Q: Do you have a favorite area of study/class you teach?

A: This is a difficult question to answer only because I don’t think I can choose just one. My specialty is gender history, so whenever I get to teach that class, I’m always excited. However—and this might sound cliché—I just really like teaching, so whatever I am teaching is exciting to me.

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