Women’s History Month 2020

This year’s Women’s History Month theme marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

valiant women

It’s also known as the women’s suffrage amendment, but every time I describe it that way, I like to clarify that though the amendment was supposed to apply to women–as in all adult women–in reality, racial discrimination prevented most women of color from voting. Many early histories of the women’s suffrage movement sideline these racial issues, barely acknowledging the contributions, for example, of African American women in cultivating support for the amendment.

Historian Cathleen Cahill has a book coming out this fall called Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement. According to the book description: “It is a collective biography of six suffragists–Yankton Dakota Sioux author and activist Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala-Ša); Wisconsin Oneida writer Laura Cornelius Kellogg; Turtle Mountain Chippewa and French lawyer Marie Bottineau Baldwin; African American poet and clubwoman Carrie Williams Clifford; Mabel Ping Hau Lee, the first Chinese woman in the United States to earn her PhD ; and New Mexican Hispana politician and writer Nina Otero Warren–both before and after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.” This looks fascinating.

While you wait for Cahill’s book, consider picking up a copy of Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s classic African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920.

Image result for rosalyn terborg-penn african american women and the struggle to vote

You’ll meet lots of great women in this book, too, and won’t soon forget them.

 

The Casual Silencing of Women

In 1863, Dr. Mary Walker, who donated her medical expertise to the US army during the Civil War since it would not commission her because she was a woman, wrote in an article for the women’s rights journal, The Sibyl:

“Not until this ‘cruel war’ has ceased, and peace shall again be ours, and a dozen histories be written containing all the facts and events that each historian shall have collected, and the noble women from all be compiled, not, I say, until then shall the world know how much women have done.”

MEW 1864 Drexel(Drexel University, College of Medicine, Archives and Special Collections)

Mary Walker understood the importance of history, and she understood the difficulties women faced in getting their voices heard. She encountered gender discrimination her entire life because of her choice in fashion, her decision to become a doctor, and her dedication to the women’s suffrage movement. If the world did not know how much women did during the Civil War and acknowledge their contributions, nothing would change, women would never achieve equality.

I thought about Dr. Walker this morning as I came across a link to a Washington Post article in my Twitter feed. Joe Heim reported about a photo display in the National Archives meant to honor the centennial of women’s suffrage. One picture, taken at the 2017 Women’s March by Getty photographer Mario Tama, had been altered, blurring out the name of the current POTUS and the words vagina and pussy.

The voices of the women involved in that protest had been erased, their concerns–and their anger–blotted out.

Why? Heim quoted from an email from the spokesperson for the National Archives, Miriam Kleiman: “As a non-partisan, non-political federal agency, we blurred references to the President’s name on some posters, so as not to engage in current political controversy.” Vagina and pussy received the same treatment out of concerns that the words could be viewed as “inappropriate” for students and other young people visiting the Archives.

Historians were quick to level criticism, rejecting Kleiman’s distinction that “In this case, the image is part of a promotional display, not an artifact.” Purdue University’s Wendy Kline pointed out, “Doctoring a commemorative photograph buys right into the notion that it’s okay to silence women’s voice and actions.”

In 2020, one hundred years after women got the right to vote–which was supposed to reinforce their equality of citizenship–women still have to fight against this erasure.

Karin Wulf, from the College of William and Mary, made another important observation. “The Archives has always been self-conscious about its responsibility to educate about source material, and in this case they could have said, or should have said, ‘We edited this image in the following way for the following reasons.’ ” She also posted an insightful Twitter thread on the matter.

To its credit, the National Archives took these concerns and criticisms seriously. In a matter of hours, it admitted, “We made a mistake,” and apologized.

Image(John Valceanu photo)

It is a good apology, timely and sincere. The image was taken down. The Archives will review its policies.

Leaving that image in place would have validated the notion that it is okay to blur or leave out things that we disagree with or make us uncomfortable. And that is not the way to preserve history. (It is surprising that anyone at the National Archives, which the United States entrusts with its historical documents, thought this was okay. It knows it has to do better.)

And once again, women are confronted with how casually their voices can be erased from the historical record.

Dr. Mary Walker would be appalled, but not surprised.

 

 

 

Happy Birthday to Dr. Mary Walker

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only female recipient of the Medal of Honor, was born on November 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was born in the town of Oswego in 1832. She served as a surgeon in the Civil War before being captured crossing enemy lines to treat wounded civilians. She was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her valor; the only woman in history to receive the distinction. She devoted her life to social causes, becoming a prominent writer and lecturer and advocating for the abolition of slavery as well as promoting women's suffrage and dress reform. Image courtesy of the Matthew Brady Collection of Civil War Photographs in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.(National Archives)

She grew up believing in abolition and women’s rights. During a time when most medical schools refused to admit women, Mary Walker found one that did–the Syracuse Medical College–and graduated in 1855.

In 1861, not long after the start of the Civil War, Dr. Walker shuttered her private practice in Rome, New York, and traveled to Washington, D.C., where she requested a commission as an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army. Denied because of her gender, Walker volunteered, working at hospitals in the capital city as well as in the field. In 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor for her services as a physician during the war.

Mary Walker was a controversial figure. Not only had she chosen a “man’s profession,” she also adopted reform dress. Commonly known as the Bloomer costume, Dr. Walker wore trousers under a shortened skirt. She was arrested several times for wearing “men’s clothing” in public yet she never gave up her bloomers. It was a woman’s right, she believed, to wear what she wanted and to do the kind of work she wanted.

A prolific writer and public speaker, Dr. Mary Walker campaigned for women’s voting rights after the Civil War. She died in 1919, the year before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

The details of her extraordinary life can be found in my forthcoming book, Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War, available for preorder now.

 

 

Looking Backward by Laura E. Foster

Laura Foster Looking Backward 1912(Library of Congress)

In 1912, Life magazine published this anti-suffrage illustration by Laura E. Foster. A well-known artist and illustrator, Foster was born in 1871 in San Francisco, where she first began doing newspaper drawings. After the 1906 earthquake, she moved to New York City, where her career continued to grow and thrive, and where she married Donald Monroe, a stockbroker about eleven years her senior.

This drawing is a stark reminder that the suffrage movement was not a straightforward march toward progress. It had begun in the late 1840s, and in 1912, when Life published Foster’s illustration, it was on the cusp of an infusion of radicalism by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. This drawing attempted to convince women that love and marriage were incompatible with a career and “professional triumph.” The higher a woman climbed toward fame, the more riddled she would become with loneliness and anxiety. And suffrage was right near the top, contributing to those negative attributes.

Women’s suffrage was written into the Constitution with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the same year Laura Foster died. Nearly one hundred years later, many women will still find the message of her illustration familiar.

 

Sending the President a Perpetual Delegation

On January 10, 1917, suffragist and political strategist Alice Paul sent a group of women from the National Woman’s Party (NWP) to the White House. Tired of fruitless discussions with President Wilson on the topic of votes for women (Wilson came up with a variety of reasons for not supporting a constitutional amendment), Paul decided to keep the message in the public eye: “If a creditor stands before a man’s house all day long, demanding payment of his bill, the man must either remove the creditor or pay the bill.”

Image result for silent sentinels

Inez Haynes Gillmore described that first delegation as consisting of a dozen women. Four carried lettered banners, eight carried ones made of the NWP’s colors of purple, white, and gold. Six women stationed themselves at the east gate of the White House, six at the west. The text of the banners contained the messages depicted above:

“Mr. President What Will You Do For Woman Suffrage”

“Mr. President How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty”

The questions were simple and direct, striking at the core of American democracy. The president tried to ignore the women, hoping they would give up and go away. When they didn’t, D.C. police arrested them on a variety of nuisance charges. Most women, including Alice Paul, chose jail over bail.

Image result for national woman's party silent sentinels Alice Paul

The perpetual delegation kept vigil for a year and a half, braving all kinds of weather and harassment from onlookers. Because of the perseverance of the NWP and other suffragists, American women achieved the right to vote in 1920.

For more on Alice Paul, see this fine biography: