A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence,” tells a story that ends 99 years ago, with the 1920 ratification of the constitutional amendment lifting voting restrictions on the basis of sex. But where to begin that tale?
Historically minded museumgoers may be surprised to discover that the show’s earliest artifact dates from 1832. Rather than start with the famed 1848 convention of women’s rights advocates at Seneca Falls, N.Y. — the first such convention in the United States — the show opens with a page from an abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, that features an engraving of an enslaved woman.
There’s an argument for starting this narrative that early, but it’s a complicated one — as is the show itself. “Votes for Women” marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment (passed by Congress in 1919 but not ratified until the following year), and yet it’s more than a simple celebration of a milestone. Curator Kate Clarke Lemay takes care to clarify some of the ways in which the promise of women’s suffrage was left unfulfilled long after 1920.
Lemay works for the museum and the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative, a Web-based project whose stated goal is to “amplify women’s voices to honor the past.” With “Votes,” Lemay ties the U.S. suffragist movement to other contemporaneous struggles. Some of them, like the abolition of slavery, are clearly related to women’s quest for self-determination. Others, notably the temperance campaign against alcoholic beverages, may not seem relevant today, yet they are inextricably intertwined with the suffrage movement.
The exhibition fills six galleries and an adjacent hallway with more than 120 images and artifacts. Many are photographic portraits, but there are also banners, posters, publications, illustrations, film clips — even a set of dishes embellished with the motto “Votes for Women.”
Among the drawings on view are a few by Charles Dana Gibson, the illustrator whose sunny depictions of (relatively) emancipated young women came to be known as “Gibson girls.” But there are also cartoons that mock freethinking and free-acting females. Thomas Nast depicted 1872 presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull as nothing less than “(Mrs.) Satan” for championing an early brand of sexual liberation dubbed “free love.”
Other women’s enthusiasms of the era were bicycles, as well as less restrictive clothing. Although neither seems worth notice today, both drew a considerable response at the time, including the “The New Costume Polka,” a song dedicated to Amelia Bloomer, who endorsed the pantaloon that was soon named after her.
Including such examples of long-forgotten controversies gives the show some lighthearted appeal and should serve to entertain visitors who just want a quick browse through the Bad Old Days. But a more complete reading of the text-heavy “Votes for Women” is a somber undertaking indeed.
The show doesn’t downplay difficulty and conflict. As Lemay writes in her introduction to the excellent and extensive catalogue, “It is critical to consider whose stories have been forgotten and overlooked, and whose have not been deemed worthy to record.”
In theory, the 19th Amendment extended the vote to all American women, but in practice, many restrictions remained: poll taxes, literacy requirements and other limits designed to disenfranchise members of minority groups. And a lot of well-to-do white suffragists were just fine with that. The abolitionist movement may have helped empower white women to organize and lecture, yet black women, American Indian women and Asian American women often found their own similar efforts unsupported.
That’s the significance of the year 1832: It’s the year the Female Anti-Slavery Society was founded, in Massachusetts — by and for African Americans.
The show includes 18 portraits of women of color, including such civil rights activists as Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Also here is Rep. Patsy Takemoto Mink, who became the first nonwhite female member of Congress (representing the state of Hawaii) in 1965.
Such accomplishments could be seen as following the instructions of the two vintage banners in the show that read: “Forward Out of Darkness” and “Failure Is Impossible.” But all around those slogans is evidence that achieving votes for women just wasn’t that easy.
National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW; npg.si.edu .
Dates: Through Jan. 5, 2020.