As we move toward the 2020 presidential election, what better time to look back at how women fought to gain the right to vote—and how sectors of the American female population were overlooked, despite their contributions to the struggle.
Curator Kate Clarke Lemay and the Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery have developed a major, truly inclusive exhibition on the history of women’s suffrage in the United States. Titled “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence,” it has been called the “most comprehensive catalogue of the movement in the past 60 years.”
One of the key issues addressed is the previous erasure of the contributions from women of color. Earlier this year, a statue design for New York’s Central Park attracted criticism, including from Gloria Steinem, for this exact reason.
80 Years of Struggle
The timeline covers over 80 years in a struggle to both legislatively attain and then actually achieve the right to vote. The seven rooms housing over 120 images and artifacts—including posters, publications, and banners—document the years from 1832 through 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was signed.
Lemay stated, “This exhibition aims to place women’s suffrage at the forefront of American History as the movement reveals the complex contours of American character including persistence.”
By beginning 16 years prior to the Seneca Falls Convention, the exhibit pays tribute to the Abolitionist movement. Susan B. Anthony and abolitionist Sojourner Truth are presented as equal “pioneers” in the crusade for women’s emancipation. As Lemay emphasized, “It is critical to consider whose stories have been forgotten and overlooked, and whose have not been deemed worthy to record.”
Kim Sajet, the Director of the National Portrait Gallery, underscored that the exhibit “recognizes that women from all walks of life have made important contributions to American history and culture.” For some, it remains under the radar that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton put enfranchisement for white females as paramount and did not extend parity to Ida B. Wells and other African-American women.
The show, which runs through January 5, 2020, has definitely broken ground in reframing the accepted paradigms. It brings to light the racial exclusion that has been both overlooked and ignored and shares a richer vision of the movement.