Three Washington, D.C. exhibits: Women’s Suffrage at 100—Equal Rights Delayed

Amy Henderson
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In a letter written to her husband John on March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams enjoined him to “remember the ladies” as the Founding Fathers defined the rights of Americans under independence. “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands,” she continued, for women did not want to be “bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Adams and his cohort didn’t abide by Abigail’s words, and even as we currently celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s passage this year—and ratification next summer—Suffrage remains but a landmark in the ongoing fight for equal pay and equal rights for women.

Susan B.Anthony (1820-1906). National Portrait Gallery, Weashington, D.C.

Three Washington, D.C. exhibitions are currently organized around the theme of Suffrage. The Library of Congress, which holds the papers of Suffragists beginning with Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, has mounted an exhibition called “Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote.”  The show describes the Suffrage movement as “the largest reform movement in U.S. history,” beginning with its launch at Seneca Falls in 1848 and ending with the ratification of the 19th amendment on August 26, 1920.

A Universal Suffrage Petition,
January 29, 1866, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s signatures leading off.

The key movement leaders mark the way, but the overall narrative is highly incremental rather than coherent.  Several Western states passed suffrage laws prior to 1919, and there were piecemeal attempts to forge national associations like the National Women Suffrage Association in 1869 and its evolution by1890 into the National American Woman Suffrage Association. There were also elements like Frances Willard’s anti-alcohol WCTU, and a group that was fighting for legalized prostitution. The portrait that emerges is of periodic attempts to create a large association that could spark wider mobilization.

“Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote,” Library of Congress through September 2020.

Petitioning President Wilson for the Vote (1913)

Sensitive to a more inclusive approach to history today, the Library’s approach also focuses on how elite white women Suffrage leaders were not inclusive, and how time after time they discriminated against inclusion of African American women—an exclusion that continued even when a new generation of Suffrage activists took control of the movement in the 20th century.

The Library’s exhibition displays how the movement publicized itself over time, notably in the 20th century, when leaders like Alice Paul pushed a more militant campaign that entailed large parades and confrontations with police. Politeness was replaced by forcefulness, with activists earning headlines by such actions as chaining themselves to the White House fence in years before President Woodrow Wilson supported Suffrage.

Photo from the 1913 Women’s March at the Capital at the entrance to the Votes for Women exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

“Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence,” National Portrait Gallery through Jan 5, 2020.

The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, “Votes for Women; A Portrait of Persistence,” chronicles the women’s movement with portraits spanning the mid-19th to the late 20th century—from Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s day, to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made Suffrage a reality for African American women.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, journalist. In 1913, at the suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., she famously refused to march in the back with the other African American women. Instead, she marched at the front of the Illinois suffrage delegation.

The Portrait Gallery’s show is purposely inclusive, arranging portraits of white women leaders alongside such African American activists as Sojourner Truth and lesser-known figures like poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. The exhibition unfolds chronologically by chapter—“Radical Women” in the mid-19th century, “Activist Women” at the end of that century, to “The New Woman” at the start of the 20th—including the Gibson Girl, and then to the development of a more militant campaign with new leaders such as Alice Paul. In this section, the exhibition describes the pennants, posters, and parades that bolstered the tougher protest movement under Paul’s leadership.

That militancy – and America’s participation in a war for democracy against Germany—led to Wilson’s ultimate acceptance of Suffrage and then to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919. The exhibition’s final chapter discusses the legacy of Suffrage, and the ongoing fight for equal rights—an as–yet unsuccessful fight Alice Paul began in the 1920s.  In addition to the static parade of portraits, curator Kate LeMay has included terrific audio-visual walls that convey such landmark events as the 1913 parade that attracted 500,000 marchers.

“Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote,” National Archives through Jan. 3, 2021

The third exhibition in Washington is at the National Archives, “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote.”  Here, the history of suffrage is shown by such boggling items as patent drawings for voting booths with separate entrances for men and women, and “special” ballots for women voting in certain contests. The Archives is also inclusive in its focus on participants, showing that even when the movement remained exclusionary, African American figures like Ida B. Wells, Chippewa student Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin (left), and Chinese immigrant Mabel Ping-Hua Lee all marched and protested.

“The Lady and the Tiger” political cartoon, early 1900s

A strain that is evident in all three exhibitions is how deeply dependent each generation of Suffrage activists was on the media that existed in their time, from incipient newspapers with illustrations in the mid-19th century, to years when technology allowed newspapers –and then magazines—to print photographs, to the rise of newspapers with far-greater reach to ever-wider audiences by the early 20th century.  The media’s ability to publicize the ever-evolving Suffrage campaign was essential to the growth of the movement itself. An ever-widening audience proved essential to passage of Suffrage.

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer

“Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote,” Library of Congress through September 2020.

“Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence,” National Portrait Gallery through Jan 5, 2020.

“Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote,” National Archives through Jan. 3, 2021

Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery

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