On Aug. 18, 2020, the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution will be celebrated throughout the nation.
The amendment, which gave women the right to vote across the United States, is being recognized in a variety of ways, from educational campaigns to political campaigns that happen to coincide with the momentous milestone.
But how many can say they know the history of the struggle to gain the right for women to vote? And how many know exactly who benefited and for whom the struggle continued?
“Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote,” now on view at the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building in the Southwest Gallery, attempts to bring a fuller understanding of the seven active decade struggle for women to gain equal footing to shape the political future of the nation.
The document-dense, multipart exhibit is a walking history lesson, starting from what most consider to be the beginning of the quest for women’s voting rights coinciding with the American Revolution in 1776.
The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 underscored the desire to address inequality and bring the plight of women in the country to a public gathering of 300 women and men who gathered for a two-day convention to debate Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments. Modeled after the Declaration of Independence, the early women’s rights activist outlined the inferior status of women and included an immediate demand for suffrage, or the right to vote in political elections.
The Women Suffrage Movement questioned the nation’s democratic foundations and commitment to democracy, exposing its longstanding class, regional and racial divides and challenging existing gender stereotypes.
Throughout the time span, which saw the country engaged in wars that threatened to derail and succeeded in delaying the push for women’s voting rights, arguments and strategies for and against women’s suffrage flared over time and place.
Using handwritten letters from the library’s vast Manuscript Division, historical photographs, books, posters, recorded sound and government documents, “Shall Not Be Denied” allows the viewer to see the actual tools used to forge a place for women in American politics.
To the credit of the curators of the richly narrated displays, women of color, particularly African American women are referenced in every section of the timeline. From early suffragists of color such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, considered to be the most prominent African-African female social reformer and writer in 19th-century America, credit is given where credit is due. But Harper was also an active abolitionist struggling to end slavery in addition to her work to advance the political stance of all women.
For the African-American suffragists, their work had further ramifications as they struggled for racial equality and the right for Blacks to vote, which would come much later down the historical timeline.
Yet and still, women like Hallie Quinn Brown, born on March 10, 1850 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as the daughter of former slaves who in 1864 migrated North to Canada, played vital roles in the history of the struggle for equality on the racial and gender forefronts. Brown’s involvement in the women’s suffrage campaign led her to found and organize the Colored Women’s League in Washington, D.C., one of the organizations allied in 1896 to become the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).
Black women like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman also participated in women’s rights movements throughout the nineteenth century, although both are better known for their valiant dedication to the abolition of slavery and the Underground Railroad. Despite their efforts, passion and activism, Black women were often generally excluded from mainstream white suffragist organizations and activities.
It is refreshing in this age of historical exclusions and rewrites to come across the name Nannie Helen Burroughs, whom so many of us know has a street named after her, but not exactly why this woman was so renowned. In “Shall Not Be Denied,” we are told of her merits as an educator, orator, civil rights activist and feminist.
Her speech at the 1900 National Baptist Convention, “How Sisters are Hindered from Helping,” cemented her place in history. Nearly a decade later, she founded the National Training Institute for Women and Girls, where the intersection of racial and gender discrimination was addressed through education and training for economic empowerment.
At the end of the multiple rooms that zig-zag through the high neoclassical interior of the circa 1897 Jefferson Building mezzanine, a film that recognizes the political achievements of women such as Barbara Jordan, the first African American woman from the South elected to Congress; Shirley Chisolm, the first African American woman elected to Congress; Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawai’i, the first Asian American woman elected to Congress; vice presidential candidates Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin; presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But the exhibit also is adamant in leaving the viewer with the knowledge that while the right to vote is about to enjoy a centenary celebration, equal rights — including equal pay for women — have yet to be achieved.
“Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight For the Vote,” is on view through September 2020 in the Southwest Gallery of the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building (10 First Street SE). The exhibit is open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.