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The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment with the “Creating Icons: How We Remember Woman Suffrage” exhibition. On view in the Nicholas F. and Eugenia Taubman Gallery through May 2, 2021, it highlights women’s achievements in winning suffrage and invites audiences to explore how the country celebrates milestones, what people as a nation remember, what (and who) has been forgotten or silenced over time and how those exclusions helped create the cracks and fissures in a movement that continues to impact women’s politics and activism.
“Ratification of the 19th Amendment was a landmark moment, removing sex as a barrier to voting in the first national victory for women’s civil rights,” said Lisa Kathleen Graddy, political history curator at the museum. “But it was a work unfinished, and many women were still excluded from voting booths and from the national memory of the suffrage movement.”
Using a jewel-box approach, the display showcases some 57 artifacts and graphics, interweaving stories of the famous and the forgotten. Materials donated between 1919 and 1939 by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA; now the League of Women Voters) to secure the organization’s place in history as leading the fight for suffrage are at the center of the exhibition. Among the artifacts are Sarah J. Eddy’s 6-foot-tall portrait of Susan B. Anthony and Anthony’s signature red shawl. Sculptor Adelaide Johnson’s busts of Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are also included. The continuing struggle for equality is reflected in two cases, one highlighting the National Women’s Conference of 1977, and the other, the 2017 National Women’s March. A case called “100 Years, 100 Women,” will highlight women serving in Congress in 2020 and includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s gavel.
“This exhibition allows us to explore how dynamic and diverse stories come to light when we approach history with deep care and consideration, so that we can then lift up the icons who will inspire the current and next generation of women’s rights activists,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the Elizabeth MacMillan Director of the museum.
Following the passage of the 19th Amendment, NAWSA continued to add to the Smithsonian collection for the next 20 years. This included the writings of Anthony, Ida Husted Harper and Stanton. Contributions of African American, Native American, immigrant and working-class women were not preserved as thoroughly, and the exhibition will examine how some of these women were left out of the story. Visitors will be able to see African American educator Nannie Helen Burroughs’ bible and badge from the Women’s Convention Auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention.
In June 1919, Congress approved the 19th Amendment and sent it out to the states for ratification. When it became part of the Constitution in August of 1920, there were no women serving in the Congress. The first woman elected to the House was Jeannette Rankin, a Montana Republican, in 1916, but when she ran for the Senate in 1918, she lost the election. Today, there are 131 women members in the 116th Congress, which convened Jan. 3, 2019. The exhibition is aiming to represent each of them with a campaign pin or other election paraphernalia.
A torch, with a scroll containing a declaration composed by poet Maya Angelou, which was run from Seneca Falls to the Houston 1977 Women’s Conference, along with buttons, pamphlets and photos, represents women coming together more than 50 years after the 19th Amendment. Forty years later came the 2017 Women’s March. It is illustrated by protest signs and two knitted “pussy hats” worn by participants. An interactive will invite visitors to select icons of women’s history from a list of 36 women based on suggestion from visitors.
The museum’s permanent exhibition, “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith,” also tells the story of voting rights and includes a suffrage wagon used by Lucy Stone at speaking engagements and to distribute the Woman’s Journal, among other suffrage related objects.
Women’s History Month programs at the museum in March include “Votes for Women,” in which visitors can join a Silent Sentinel Suffragist on her way to the 1917 White House protests, presented every Friday at noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., and a March 27 “Cooking Up History” cooking demonstration based on cookbooks related to the suffrage movement, featuring Graddy and Bonnie Benwick, former deputy editor of the Washington Post’s Food section. The museum is planning to host monthly “Objects Out of Storage” events to further showcase the historic collections.
The companion website is at americanhistory.si.edu/exhibitions/creating-icons.
The exhibition is made possible by the generous support of Robert and Lynne Uhler; Ted and Marian Craver; Mrs. Kathleen Manatt and Michele A. Manatt; Sandy, Cindy, Hayden, Thea, Sabrina and William Sigal; the Smithsonian Women’s Committee; Diane Spry Straker; and Ambassador Nicholas F. Taubman and Mrs. Eugenia L. Taubman.
This exhibition is part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, Because of Her Story, one of the country’s most ambitious undertakings to research, collect, document, display and share the complete and compelling story of women in America. Launched in 2018, the initiative seeks to create a more equitable and just American society by creating, educating, disseminating and amplifying the historical record of the accomplishments of American women. More information about the initiative, including exhibitions and public programs, is available online at womenshistory.si.edu. #BecauseOfHerStory
Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. Located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, the museum is free and open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). For more information, visit americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000. On social media, the museum can be found on Facebook at @americanhistory, and on Twitter and Instagram at @amhistorymuseum.
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