Anne Gass says her new work of historical fiction “challenges the narrative of who a suffragist was.” Kristen McNerney / Lakes Region Weekly

Anne B. Gass has been on a journey in recent years to uncover women’s rights history while advocating for her contemporaries. Her latest book, “We Demand: The Suffrage Road Trip,” is part of her commitment to continue the fight her foremothers started.

Author Anne Gass says her latest book “sounds the alarm in a positive way.” Contributed

Gass, vice chairperson of the Gray Town Council, has roots in activism that go back to her great-grandmother, a suffragist Gass profiled in her 2014 book, “Voting Down the Rose: Florence Brooks Whitehouse and Maine’s Fight for Woman Suffrage.” Gass is compelled, she said, to continue telling women’s stories that might otherwise be lost to history.

“We Demand: The Suffrage Road Trip,” is a work of  historical fiction based on the actual cross-country trip taken by two Swedish-American suffragists to demand the right to vote from Congress in 1915. Gass said her book is an alternative take on a dominant narrative in women’s history and a lesson in systemic barriers faced by women and minorities. Gass’ tale highlights intersectional elements such as race, class and sexuality, she said, that are not always at the forefront of historical teachings about the movement, and evokes similarities between the past and present.

“It sounds the alarm in a positive way,” Gass said.

Ingeborg Kindstedt and Maria Kindberg were in their 50s when they drove from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., to advocate for women’s suffrage. Historical accounts of the trip largely left out Kindstedt and Kindberg, instead focusing on their younger, wealthier, native-born travel companion Sara Bard Field, who the press and the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage considered the ideal representation of the women’s suffrage movement, Gass said. With not enough evidence to write a nonfiction account of Kindstedt’s and Kindberg’s journey, Gass decided to spotlight the two interesting but overlooked women in a novel.

“I was struck by the power of reframing things,” Gass said. “(The book) challenges the narrative of who a suffragist was.”

Women’s activist and award-winning essayist Michelle Cacho-Negrete of Portland, who has taught women’s history and activism at schools and other organizations alongside Gass, said, “We Demand” is “one of the few women buddy books.”

“A women buddy car trip – when do you see something like that? It’s a history book, it’s an adventure story, it’s a drama, it’s a comedy … it has such fascinating, endearing characters,” Cacho-Negrete said.

Gass portrays Kindstedt and Kindberg as a lesbian couple. Although she couldn’t find concrete evidence about a romantic relationship between them – despite finding they lived together for many years – Gass said she wanted to highlight a queer element in the women’s suffrage movement she discovered in her research, but wasn’t talked about publicly at the time or found in popular historical accounts today.

Although set more than 100 years ago, the women in the novel have much in common with 21st-century women,  Gass said.

“In many ways, things haven’t changed a whole lot,” she said.

She said, for example, that her research found women in the early 1900s were frustrated by being ignored or “othered” in a room full of men. They also bore the brunt of added responsibilities, much like today when, during the pandemic, women have had to step up their efforts to oversee their children’s remote learning on top of their work and household duties.

Still, she said, women then found time to work toward women’s suffrage.

“I was shocked at how active women were in this era,” Gass said.

Recognizing that the past and the present are not always wholly distinct when it comes to inequality and injustice is something Gass hopes readers will take from her book.

Systemic inequalities can be hard to recognize for many reasons, something that became more clear to her during her campaign for the Maine House of Representatives in 2018 when she spoke to many Mainers.

“People feel they work hard and don’t get a break,” she said. “We live in these culturally isolated pods, so how would we know what other people’s experiences are?”

Gass quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” but adds, “sometimes it gets bent back.” Progress requires real action, she said, and not just passing time.

Gass is a member of the Maine Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, an organizer for the Maine Suffrage Centennial, an advocate of the Maine Equal Rights Amendment – yet to be adopted into the state constitution – and a women’s history lecturer.

Her book is about a journey, whether that be the journey of Kindstedt and Kindberg, the journey toward women’s equality, or her own personal journey with social activism, she said.

“Even though I’m not in the book it’s still my journey and I’ll always be on it,” she said.

“We Demand: The Suffrage Road Trip,” can be purchased at annebgass.com or at maineauthorspublishing.com. An exhibit co-curated by Gass, “Begin again: reckoning with intolerance in Maine” is also on display at the Maine Historical Society in Portland. 

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