National Constitution Center exhibit highlights long fight for women's suffrage
A new exhibition at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia highlights the long fight for women's suffrage. Cherry Hill Courier-Post
It was a 70-year struggle, and many of the early champions of women's suffrage didn't live to see their dream realized.
Many who fought for it aligned their mission with the noble causes of abolishing slavery and granting Blacks the right to vote, but when Black men saw their enfranchisement before white women (or any women) did, racism brought ugly divisions to the forefront of the movement.
And even when the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, poor women and Black women were often disenfranchised through poll taxes, literacy tests and other obstacles thrown in front of their path to the polls.
"The 19th Amendment: How Women Won the Vote" opened to the public Wednesday at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The exhibition is physically alongside "Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality," with both highlighting our complicated national journey toward a more perfect union.
The museum reopened earlier this month after closing because of the ongoing pandemic, and while admission is free through Sept. 5, advance tickets are required and the museum is limiting the number of visitors inside to follow social distancing guidelines. Masks are required throughout the museum.
The exhibition, timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage, traces the long fight for it, starting in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, said Elena Popchock. But the desire for suffrage burned long before that: One of the first pieces visitors will see is a quote from a 1776 letter to John Adams, a founding father, from his wife, Abigail.
"In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary to make, I desire you would remember the ladies ...," she wrote as her husband and his fellow revolutionaries formed a new country at Independence Hall, just across Market Street from the National Constitution Center. "Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could."
The exhibition includes a rare printing of the Declaration of Sentiments, written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and printed for the Seneca Falls Convention.
Playing off Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, she wrote:
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.
We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. ... Such has been the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled.
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. ...
Cady Stanton then enumerated the many ways in which women were "aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights," to money, property, education, employment or enfranchisement; once married, she wrote, women were "in the eye of the law, civilly dead."
The very fact of the convention, and of women fighting for suffrage, was appalling to some, said Popchock. "Women weren't even supposed to leave the home, let alone speak in public."
The idea of women being able to vote gained momentum after the Civil War, she explained, as the nation during Reconstruction began to grapple with the rights that would be granted to newly-freed slaves. But the 14th Amendment, which affirmed citizenship for anyone born in the United States (including former slaves), also marked the first time gender was introduced into the Constitution: It declared all male citizens over age 21 be allowed to vote. The 15th Amendment affirmed that right, but said it "shall not be denied ... on account of race."
Thus began a bitter fight, with some white women angry at having their right to vote denied, while Black men had theirs enshrined in law.
Popchock pointed out a one of two "Meet the Suffragists" walls, with photos of the first generation — one that included white women like Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Cady Stanton, but also Black women like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Sarah Parker Redmond. (Men including Frederick Douglass and Henry Ward Beecher also are on the wall.)
"This was a 70-year-long fight," said Popchock. "And it was even longer than that for women of color."
The museum had to adjust some of its normally interactive exhibitions for the pandemic; instead of buttons that produce sound or video, visitors can scan QR codes and download information on their cell phones, or listen to audio recordings of speeches and debates as they stand before an exhibit.
As the second generation of women, including New Jersey native Alice Paul, grew emboldened in the fight for suffrage, picketing the White House and petitioning President Woodrow Wilson, they also encountered more forceful resistance. Borrowing from the more militant tactics deployed by British suffragettes, they also found themselves jailed, beaten and force fed when they staged hunger strikes.
Ernestine Hara Kettler, imprisoned for picketing the White House in 1917, described her ordeal in a 1970 interview. Excerpts from her interview were read by an actor and visitors can walk into a "cell" while hearing of her ordeal and seeing a silhouetted actor recreate scenes from her time in jail.
Video maps and period drawings show visitors how states began granting women limited suffrage, allowing them to vote in school board elections, for example; Wyoming was the first state to grant full suffrage to women, and the momentum moved from West to East, as Wilson equivocated by framing the issue as a question of states' rights.
In Pennsylvania — which did not grant women the right to vote until the passage of the 19th Amendment made it the law of the land — activists created a Justice Bell, a replica of the Liberty Bell whose clapper was bound to the side, signifying the silencing of women's voices. In other states, women had to cast their ballots in separate boxes, lest their votes be cast for candidates or issues they weren't permitted to vote.
The exhibit includes a cutout vintage car with a banner demanding a constitutional amendment where visitors can pose for photos; there is grainy film footage of a parade supporting women's suffrage "to show people that this was real, not just something in a history text," said Popchock.
IF YOU GO
The 19th Amendment: How Women Won the Vote is open to the public at The National Constitution Center, 525 Arch St., Philadelphia. Admission is free through Sept. 5 but advance tickets are required. After Sept. 5, adult tickets are $14.50; seniors are $13; college students with ID are $13; children ages 6 to 18 are $11. Children under 6 and active military members are free.
For more information, tickets, online exhibitions and educational resources, visit https://constitutioncenter.org/
Phaedra Trethan has been a reporter and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered the region since 2015. She’s called South Jersey home since 1971 and has voted every November since 1992. Contact her with feedback, news tips or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @CP_Phaedra, or by phone at 856-486-2417.
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