Remembering the Suffragists

     As we approach the one-hundred-year anniversary of the women’s right to vote on August 18, 2020, we can begin to formulate a series of questions that not only help us better understand the past, but that might also resonate with our current world. How can we learn about this early uprising against the status quo in a way that captures the complexities and nuances of the movement? How can we honor the determination, the grit and the tenacity of this forward-thinking group of women? What can we learn from this piece of American history that might help us navigate forward in the ongoing, continuing struggle for equal rights across groups of Americans? What could these pioneers illuminate for us about resistance and protest? About unity and solidarity? How can we re-examine this historic period through the lens of being a twenty-first-century woman, an African American, an immigrant, or any number of groups still engaged in a fight for equality and justice? Many of these questions are addressed in the upcoming InLiquid online exhibition, curated by Patricia Moss-Vreeland, entitled Remembering the Suffragists, 100 Years of Women Voting in the United States.

Red Light by Sadie E. Francis

     Interestingly, many of the suffragists utilized the arts to get their message out, making an art exhibition the ideal lens through which to examine this centennial. This exhibition, which will include a wide range of media, voices, and forms of artistic expression, seeks art that explores how the suffragist movement might bring meaning to each of us today. It is also a call for art and personal experiences related to present day struggles for equal rights. Unlike typical artistic practices which tend to be primarily a solitary endeavor, this exhibit aims to spark dialogue, discussion, involvement, and to build upon a cacophony of ideas. There will be future iterations evolving to include a second round of exhibition, discussions, opportunities to respond to the artwork, and talks with thought leaders such as a feminist historian, and writer about Black Lives Matter. Like the suffragists themselves, the aim is to employ disparate voices to unite and sustain necessary conversations about these historical issues as well as ongoing current struggles for justice. As explained by Moss-Vreeland: “Art’s ability to represent history and personal narrative is its own form of activism. By revisiting history we have the opportunity to question what is written versus what is undocumented, and to carve out the often ignored truths. By remembering, we can continue this historic work led by a group of very diverse women, the Suffragists. It’s in their stories and sacrifices we find courage, grit, persistence, friendship, and often-contrasted feelings. As we expand our collective history through our unique responses, we build bridges to each other and to the future.” 

     This exhibit promises to be all the more powerful given the fact that longstanding sexist and racist barriers are being broken during this current election. As I write this on August 11, 2020, Kamala Harris has just become the presumptive nominee for the vice-presidential democratic ticket. This is an electrifying, almost poetically timed victory in the course of historic change initiated by the suffragists. It took ninety-six years to have a woman as a major party’s nominee for president (Hillary Clinton 2016), and it took one hundred years from the ratification of the nineteenth amendment, almost exactly to this day, to have a Black woman nominated for vice president on a major US party’s ticket. As a biracial daughter of immigrants, she is also the first person of Indian descent to be nominated for vice presidency, and the fourth woman in the history of this country to be on a presidential ticket. It is crucial, however, to recognize that when the nineteenth amendment was ratified, millions of African American women were still not allowed to vote, just as Native Americans and Asian immigrants were excluded from being citizens, so the fight continued onward after the amendment in a fragmented, gradual manner. [1]

OVUM II by Carole Kunstadt

     Alongside the recent groundbreaking political nomination, there are some almost eerily striking parallels between the suffragist movement and our current world, making this history all the more relevant. The suffragists had to contend with not only the infringement of World War I on their plans, but also with the Spanish flu pandemic. As poignantly noted by a suffragist in 1918: “Everything conspires against women’s suffrage. Now it is the influenza.” [2] How can we help but conclude that history really does repeat itself, albeit wearing a different cloak? Despite a century between circumstances, the similarities to our current fight for racial justice in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, economic devastation, and a similarly impending election are remarkable. We have a similar constellation of circumstances conspiring against our current necessary fight for justice. And yet, some believe that with chaos, hardship, and justified uprising comes the potential for transformation of a society. As noted in Smithsonian: “While disasters are by definition devastating, sometimes they can lead to changes that are a small silver lining… One hundred years ago, a powerful strain of the flu swept the globe, infecting one third of the world’s population. The aftermath of this disaster, too, led to unexpected social changes, opening up new opportunities for women and in the process irreversibly transforming life in the United States.” [3] Women unexpectedly became indispensable in the workforce, given the fact that men were called to war and were more likely to die in the flu pandemic. [4] We don’t know how our current crises will end, and whether our current protests will open the doors to justice, but there may be pearls of wisdom embedded in history.

     So now that the astounding relevance of the upcoming women’s suffragist centennial is abundantly clear, a sneak peek at some of the works in the Remembering the Suffragists exhibit is in order. There is sizzling creativity here in a diversity of mediums and artists, and ways of expanding upon many current issues that relate to the suffragist movement. For example, Ovum II by Carole Kunstadt is a delicately halved ostrich egg inscribed with fragments of Margaret Fuller’s 1885 writings, a feminist pioneer. The artist eloquently notes that it provides “a nest for gestation of her feminist ideals, all nestled on twigs.” Adding to the delicate, fragile nature of both the egg and the new feminist ideals, as well as the expected frivolity of nineteenth century woman’s life, the artist notes the fact that ostriches were nearly brought to extinction around that time due to their use in fashionable women’s clothing and the decorative arts. Another work is a short film clip by Meghan Rose-Abdel-Moneim of a cheerful woman dressed in decidedly colorful homemaker garb, explaining the ingredients in a Recipe for Political Disenfranchisement. Ingredients include 1.5 cups of bad experience with law enforcement, the educational system, or the function of government, 1.5 cups of mashed “my vote won’t count” mentality, among other equally scorching ingredients. It’s an imaginative, ingenious, and sassy recipe, and the finished loaf speaks volumes. And then there are the ‘I Voted’ stickers, entitled A More Perfect Union, by Pamela Hovland. These stickers depict women from Winton, CT, including many suffragists, who cast their first national ballots in 1920. What a powerful message of pride, persistence, and courage. And wouldn’t it be a powerful message of solidarity and historical momentum to wear a similar sticker after casting your vote this year? There are so many other inspiring and provocative pieces in this exhibit. You’ll have to see them for yourself!

     Democracy gives us the right to vote and ultimately depends on the vote of the American people. It’s hard to imagine a world where voting is prohibited, based on sex or skin color or any other categorization. It’s also hard to imagine a world where women are not allowed to work, to have their own last name, or even to use a credit card without their husband’s co-signature. Though inroads have been made, the push for justice and equality is far from over. Those seemingly liberating constitutional words that ‘all men are created equal,’ despite being indisputably true, have not yet been fulfilled. This exhibit provides a unique opportunity to look at a historic moment through the thought provoking and powerfully distilling lens of art, and to initiate needed dialogue and thought. According to Robyn Muncy, a historian at the University of Maryland: “It was important to see the nineteenth amendment not as a triumphant culmination, but one landmark in a struggle for equal rights for all citizens that isn’t over yet.” [5] Perhaps, like the suffragists one hundred years ago, our current crises including the pandemic, economic collapse, racial injustice, and justified mistrust of government could ultimately fuel real, needed change in this country. So, go see the exhibit, and participate in the ongoing conversation. And most of all, go vote! Your ancestors fought hard to allow you that right. Use it.

[1] Jennifer Schuessler, “The Complex History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement,” The New York Times, August 15, 2019.

[2] Alisha Haridasani Gupta, quote from New York Times-Picayune (1918) in “How the Spanish Flu Almost Upended Women’s Suffrage,” The New York Times, April 28, 2020.

[3] Christine Crudo Blackburn, et al., “How the 1918 Flu Pandemic Helped Advance Women’s Rights,” Smithsonian, March 2, 2018.

[4] Christine Crudo Blackburn, Ibid., Smithsonian, March 2, 2018.

[5] Jennifer Schuessler, quote from Robyn Muncy in “The Complex History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, The New York Times, August 15, 2019.

Dora Ficher

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