The ladies' room
Sorry, Hillary: A century ago, women were fighting to get into the voting booth and the West Wing.
Wed Feb 13 2008
Sculpture: Adelaide Johnson
Susan B. Anthony was the Moses of the women’s suffrage movement: Dying 14 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment, she never saw the promised land of female enfranchisement. On Saturday 16, she will be reunited with her sisters, in a sense, as “Votes for Women,” a modest exhibit devoted to the suffragettes, opens in the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
In the 700-square-foot Herstory Gallery, just steps from the feminist installation The Dinner Party (where Anthony has a place setting), her marble bust will stand sentinel over portraits and mementos celebrating her achievements, along with those of compatriots like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Alice Paul.
“Women’s suffrage was such a long struggle,” says Melissa Messina, who curated the exhibit. “It was first discussed in a formal way at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, but we didn’t get the vote until 1920. That’s generations of women fighting for over seven decades.”
Messina has collected numerous artifacts for “Votes,” including photos, suffragette newsletters and a copy of Cady Stanton’s The Women’s Bible, an annotated feminist version of the sacred text with handwritten notes and underlined passages. The exhibit takes its name from a frequent slogan at the turn of the 20century, seen here emblazoned on banners, sashes and a deck of playing cards.
Although one could also regard the title as an allusion to Hillary Clinton, the former First Lady’s candidacy is not addressed directly here. “Votes” does, however, honor Victoria Woodhull, the first female presidential candidate—who tossed her bonnet into the ring in 1872. A full-page engraving from Harper’s depicts the savvy businesswoman and advocate of sexual egalitarianism addressing Congress—the first woman to do so. “Despite being such an important figure, Woodhull was pretty much written out of history, even from within the movement,” says Messina. “Her presentation was seen as just too radical.” A Thomas Nast cartoon of Woodhull, on loan from Messina’s personal collection, bears the caption, get thee behind me, mrs. satan!
The most compelling portion of “Votes” isn’t found on the gallery walls, though. Visitors who dial a special code on their cell phones can listen to recorded excerpts from actual speeches delivered by the suffrage movement’s most impassioned speakers. “This was a war of words—women had no weapon but their voice—and it’s very hard to convey that visually,” says Messina. “But when you can hear Lucy Stone delivering ‘Disappointment Is the Lot of Women’ or an excerpt from Susan B. Anthony’s ‘Women Want Bread, Not the Ballot,’ it just blows you away.”
Messina hopes museumgoers come away from the show with an understanding of how revolutionary the suffragettes were. “It was taboo for women just to speak in public, let alone demand their rights,” she says. “Some suffragists, like Anthony, were totally focused on getting the vote. But others were advocating marriage reform, education reform, temperance, racial justice—and there were plenty of women who were against suffrage!”
Coline Jenkins, a great-great-granddaughter of Cady Stanton who has loaned a number of pieces to “Votes,” has more concrete aspirations for the show. “Before I die,” she says, “I want to see a female President. And I’ve waited long enough.”
“Votes for Women” runs Sat 16– Nov 30 at the Brooklyn Museum.