This year, NYSCA honors the New York State Women’s Suffrage Centennial. Through our Regional Economic Development Council Program, we have provided FY2017 grants to organizations that are commemorating the occasion through their programs. In addition, on this blog, we will regularly pay tribute to grantees who honor the Centennial and showcase the impact of women in New York State arts and culture.
We spoke with Mia Nagawiecki, Vice President for Education at the New-York Historical Society about the exhibition The Battle for the Ballot: The Centennial of Women’s Suffrage in New York, which is on view on Governors Island through October 15. Supported by REDC funding, this teen-curated exhibition commemorates the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in New York State. Visitors learn how the women’s suffrage movement developed from the monumental Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to the parades, protests, and coalition-building that won women the vote in 1917 and continues to influence political organizing today. NYSCA also supports the New-York Historical Society through our Museum Program.
The New-York Historical Society has demonstrated a strong commitment to women’s roles in history this year, with the opening of the Center for Women’s History in the spring and now the Battle for the Ballot. What inspired the creation of this exhibition?
We believe history learning happens most powerfully when people see themselves reflected in the past. Women are, and have always been, half the population of our nation, but traditional histories dedicate far less than half their attention to the perspectives, experiences, and contributions of women and girls. Our new Center for Women’s History, which inspired this exhibition, works to help everyone appreciate that women’s history is American history.
So, we have had the importance of women’s history on the front of our minds, and 2017 is the centennial of New York State women gaining the right to vote. This exhibition highlights New York’s role in women gaining suffrage, at both the state and national level, through the actions of the suffragists who worked to achieve the vote. We hope it contributes to making history feel more personal and relevant to New Yorkers, and to all visitors. We are grateful to the New York State Council on the Arts for their generous support of this project and for shining a light on the history of women’s suffrage in New York to commemorate the centennial.
This show provides a remarkable opportunity for young curators to get involved with the museum. Why it was important to have this exhibition teen-curated?
Our teen curators brought a fresh perspective to the topic and really wanted to challenge the version of history that makes its way into the textbooks and, therefore, the national memory.
They came into the project with a great interest in presenting traditionally under-represented peoples and stories: the experiences of African Americans, Chinese-Americans, the working-class, the poor, socialists, etc.; and the numerous, complex barriers to women getting the vote.
They were especially interested in learning the various reasons people were for and against women having the right to vote and making connections to issues that exist today. We found it particularly compelling how much the teens were interested in the more radical activists as well as exploring the anti-suffrage arguments of the period. This was completely guided by their interest and was something we hadn’t anticipated, and it added a lot to the exhibition.
Are there any lesser-known suffragettes or unusual artifacts we should be on the lookout for?
Dr. Mabel Lee is probably the most “unknown” figure in the show. She was a leader based within New York’s Chinatown who advanced the conversation of suffrage within the Chinese and Chinese-American communities. Some other figures who are lesser-known today but were quite prominent during their time are Victoria Woodhull, Rose Schneiderman, Clara Lemlich, Leda Richberg-Hornsby, and Ida Blair.
In 1916, Leda Richberg-Hornsby piloted a biplane called the Suff Bird, accompanied by Ida Blair. They planned to “bomb” President Woodrow Wilson with pro-suffrage leaflets as he sailed his yacht down the Hudson River, en route to the illumination of the Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately, near-gale force winds forced them to crash land in a swamp on Staten Island before they were able to carry out their feat. Their commitment to the cause is remarkable, and there were many other women who were just as passionate, even if they couldn’t pilot planes. Richberg-Hornsby was the first female pilot to graduate from the Wright Flying School in Dayton. The exhibition features a photograph of these brave New York suffragists and tells their story.
How have the Teen Leaders and visitors responded to the exhibition and its resonance today?
There have been many great conversations in which people in the gallery are drawing parallels to various issues that are a part of the political discourse today, such as voter disenfranchisement, institutional racism, the challenges in creating inclusive grassroots movements, workers’ rights, and more.
The teens included a chalk board wall in the exhibition design, where visitors can respond to prompts that change from week-to-week, giving visitors a voice in the space. One prompt that sticks out was “What is feminism to you?” The teens chose this knowing that the term has come to mean many things, both positive and negative, and the responses from visitors reflected that.
This exhibit exemplifies the strength and perseverance it requires to make a change for what is right. How do you want this exhibition to inspire young people – and audiences overall – today?
We hope this exhibition shows New Yorkers and Americans of all ages that it takes a lot of people working together to make change possible, and that it does not happen overnight.
Our narrative begins in 1848 with the Declaration of Sentiments, the document that came out of Seneca Falls, the first women’s rights convention in the United States. Only one of the signers would live to see universal suffrage become a reality in the United States 72 years later (though she was confined to her bed on Election Day and unable to cast a ballot). The ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 was the result of generations of activism, which culminated in traditionally disparate groups, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Grange, the Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, working together to realize a larger goal.
It is crucial for all of us, as citizens, to be open to having conversations across divides, to work toward a goal that might not have immediate return, and to be dedicated to shaping our democracy into whatever each of us thinks a “more perfect Union” is.