Elizabeth Karcher, executive director at the house, said an exhibit about women’s voting had been planned since last year.
“It would have been throughout the house,” she said. “We realized that couldn’t take place.”
For a while, all museums in town were closed. That included the Kalorama mansion to which the 28th president moved after leaving office. When museums were cleared to reopen, some restrictions were in place. These included a prohibition on guided tours. The Wilson House has only guided tours.
Karcher got to thinking. In the early days of the pandemic, back in the spring, she’d planted a garden in the street box on S Street NW in front of the house. A large banner set in the ground explained how during the First World War, Americans created “victory gardens.”
“The effort began in public parks and areas,” Karcher said. She planted herbs — mint, basil, thyme — edible flowers and some peppers in the street box. A tall, fabric banner announces “Sow the seeds of Victory.” A second celebrates the modern victory garden as endorsed by Michelle Obama when she was first lady. Another sign explores the evolution of Columbia as the symbol of the United States.
The garden flourished — “Someone would water it for us. I thought that was very touching,” Karcher said — and it gave her an idea. If that tiny alfresco display could work, perhaps the exhibit on how women secured the vote could be salvaged. A theme even suggested itself: Advocates for women’s equality had worked outside the mainstream and some of their most visible efforts were literally outside, including marching and protesting.
And so starting Sept. 10, the public has been invited to enter the grassy, terraced square behind the house and stroll among 19 tall banners that bear historic images from the Library of Congress. Text on other signs describes various ways suffragists fought for the vote.
Part of the exhibit touches on Woodrow Wilson’s evolving thoughts on the matter. Dial a number on your phone and you can listen to excerpts from a letter he wrote in 1908 in which he argued that women shouldn’t be given the vote. They had no experience outside the home, Wilson said, and thus didn’t possess the skills needed to make such an important decision.
Wilson’s thinking would change. In 1915 he voted in New Jersey to allow women to vote in that state. Wilson became preoccupied by World War I, but the ways women contributed to that effort made it clear to most Americans that keeping half the citizenry out of the voting booth made no sense.
There’s no mention of Wilson’s racism or his policies barring Black Americans from serving in civil-service jobs once open to them. But there is a section on how African American women such as Mary Church Terrell and organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women worked to gain the vote for women.
So did other minorities. One sign reproduces a 1912 newspaper headline: “Chinese Girl Wants Vote.” The headline had a “Man Bites Dog” quality about it — imagine the nerve! — but it referred to Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, a Chinese emigre and Barnard student who even after the passage of the 19th Amendment couldn’t vote. The Chinese Exclusion Act — passed in 1882 and not repealed until 1943 — barred Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens.
On a recent morning, I had the place to myself, watched by the tiny statue of Pan in the center of the garden. Visitors must reserve a time slot at woodrowwilsonhouse.org (it’s free but a $10 donation is suggested) and can move about in a socially distanced way. There’s even a bottle of hand sanitizer. “Suffrage Outside” will run through Nov. 1.
“We’ve had some office outings, which is nice,” Karcher said. “We’ve only had to close once, for thunder and lightning.”
The National Trust for Historic Preservation site is a pleasant oasis in a fancy neighborhood. And you’ll be next door to the house of the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos (owner of The Washington Post).
Might there be a future outdoor exhibit at the Wilson House?
“I’m debating,” said Karcher. “This worked out so well.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.