Spanning almost a century of struggle for suffrage, a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. opens a fascinating time capsule revealing the complex narratives at play in the mission to secure votes for women. Intertwined with the histories of abolitionism and the US Civil War, this story of early feminism in America reveals the challenges suffragists faced, including from within the movement itself as racism fragmented the cause.
Opening just ahead of the centenary of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave votes to some American women for the first time, this epic exhibition presents the brave, radical and iconic women who changed history.
With the show already drawing a starry crowd, including an appearance from Hillary Clinton at the show’s preview, historian and curator extraordinaire Kate Clarke Lemay shares an exclusive insight into her five personal favourites from this phenomenal exhibition.
1. Lilly Martin Spencer, The War Spirit at Home, 1866
“One of the earliest object s in the exhibition --which I really love-- is a painting by Lilly Martin Spencer. She was a female breadwinner artist which was very unusual for the time. She painted a woman reading a New York Times newspaper recounting the recent victory of the Battle of Vicksburg . It is a genre scene which portrays a pair of women and a bunch of children who are being rowdy. Vicksburg was a really tough battle and men on both sides died because Union soldiers blockaded the city and prevented food from getting in . The two mature women are really serious, they’re not celebrating and they’re looking really somber, so you see this disparity between them and the kids who are being rowdy and having a make-believe moment of victory and what they think that should look like Whereas on the other hand, the women have a more grown up version of dealing with actual reality of what a terrible battle meant --a difficult turning point in the most divisive moment s in American history, the Civil War.
That’s the backdrop for what the suffragists were dealing with, it was in the context of the abolition movement which helped lead up to the civil war. This is right before the 14th and 15th Amendments were ratified; the 14th Amendment dealt a huge blow to the suffrage movement and put them back by 100 years, because it gave the vote only to men and for the first time the word “male” was written into the Constitution, so although the 15th Amendment enfranchised all American citizens, by virtue of 14th Amendment women still didn’t have the right to vote.
What I like about this painting is it sets the scene for the suffrage movement, you’ve got the civil war, which is a dividing America, and in the painting you can see that the kids don’t get it but the women do.
In this exhibition I was looking for works that could break this complicated history into something comprehensible and this is a window into that world because there was a terrible war, no men, rowdy children, and no hope for improvement because 14th and 15th Amendments would exclude women from having a political voice.”
2. Thomas Nast, Get Thee Behind Me, (Mrs.) Satan! Published in Harper’s Weekly Feb 17 1872
“Then there’s a portrait from next era which is a caricature of Victoria Woodhull Get Thee Behind Me, (Mrs.) Satan! which was printed in Harpers Weekly published in February 1872, so this wood engraving pictures Victoria Woodhull who had a great way of wearing something like victory rolls on the top of her head and here she’s characterized with horns in place of her hair and with demon wings attached, looking over her shoulder and walking away from a woman who is seen travelling the path of hardship because she’s got her alcoholic husband and three kids on her back. Victoria Woodhull was trying to advocate for free love because at the time women could not get divorced. In the first painting we looked at Lilly Martin Spencer was showing a genre scene of women doing it all, carrying her household and being the breadwinner when women weren’t given property rights or any rights to their children, and these were the issues that the suffragists were dealing with. Here, Victoria Woodhull was advocating for not getting married and doing it all without men, her view was to encourage women to have sex outside of marriage, she believed that would emancipate women. Her critics were trying to find any way to dismiss her, she was the first woman to run for president on a third party ticket, in the US it’s really unusual to have a third party candidate and as a woman even more so, so in 1872 when the suffragists supported her, that really alienated a lot of people from the suffrage cause. Victoria Woodhull took part in activism during 1870-1892 when women were going out and voting, getting arrested and then refusing to pay the fine so that when they went to jail they would then appeal their sentencing, so I think it summarizes a lot of the different ways the suffragists were taking action in spite of the two amendments.”
3. Sallie E. Garrity, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, 1893
“Within American suffrage you then have the racism which characterizes the history. The portrait of Ida B Wells was taken in Chicago by a female photographer. At the time African Americans were constantly being characterized in the popular press through the kind of minstrel scene with exaggerated features and all kind of representations that dehumanized them. All the suffragists were being attacked for not being respectable and so they all went out of their way to make sure they had beautiful studio portraits made of them.
What I love about this picture is she’s just in to her thirties and you see the she’s so beautifully dressed and her hair is beautifully set, and she has on a an exquisite dress with lace and beadwork embroidered down the front and it’s absolutely a statement of respectability and sobriety and womanhood. She looks so young and it’s taken just a year after started her anti-lynching campaign; her best friend was lynched and when Ida began her anti-lynching campaign her offices were burned down and she was run out of Memphis, Tennessee, and literally exiled, she couldn’t return, and then you see this portrait of her, she is committing herself in public by having this portrait made to accompany her speeches which were then being published. She’s an incredible activist and she looks so young and so vulnerable.
African American women all along were organizing amongst themselves via church groups and other local organizations. They were at the vanguard of suffrage in many ways and didn’t lose pace at all when white women excluded them from suffrage organizations. Ida B Wells was at the forefront of all that – she was educated, she had taken her power and put it towards a public face, and you can see all of that in this picture. It says so many things on so many difference levels and it’s so revealing, I really love that portrait.”
4. Bain News Service, Hedwig Reicher as Columbia in Suffrage Pageant 1913
“This is a portrait of Hedwig Reicher posing as Columbia, the allegorical figure of the United States. In the early nineteenth century a group of American suffragists were studying in London and got radicalized, they were taught the methods of militant suffragettes in Britain. Alice Paul, who had been in grad school in London, brought back the compelling tactics she learned from the British suffragettes. She was a brilliant tactician who organized what today we would call a march, but then was called a procession or a parade, in which women would march through the Capital to the Treasury Building. In 1913, 8,000 suffragists marched and drew a crowd of 500,000 people, mostly men. Their idea was to upstage Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural speech which was taking place the next day; ultimately, they did successfully upstage him because he had almost no crowd! The procession had tableaux vivants, floats, delegations from states, nurses, lawyers, but the African American women were told to walk at the back of the parade; Ida B Wells was like “I’m going to march with my state delegation” and so created this act of civil disobedience within an act of civil disobedience when she walked with her state’s delegation.
So in this picture Hedwig Reicher is playing the part of Columbia at the conclusion of the parade where they put on a pageant, they had peace doves released and children running around with balloons and the parade marches in front of Hedwig dressed as this beautiful view of democracy being reviewed by the figure of the United States, because the figure of Columbia represents Liberty, Plenty, Charity, Justice and Hope. At the time the suffragists did not have a friend in the chief of police, so he actually refused them police protection, but the Secretary of War in the President’s Cabinet was a friend to suffragists and they convinced him of the threat to their safety at the parade, so he put the national guard on standby at Ft. Myers in Virginia; when the men in the audience became aggressive they literally called in the cavalry!”
5. Charmian Reading, Fannie Lou Hamer, 1964
“Here we have Fannie Lou Hamer, she was an important voice after the 19th Amendment was brought in because the Amendment itself just says “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”; it’s very vague and doesn’t just say “all citizens are guaranteed the right to vote” period; that doesn’t make sense because for black people, thanks to Jim Crow era laws, they had all these impediments to their citizens’ rights, there were things like literacy tests which were imposed, as well as poll taxes, so you couldn’t vote unless you paid taxes, so you can imagine in that situation if you didn’t have a lot of liquidity or education it really impacted a lot of Americans.
Fannie was a great activist because she herself had gone through a rough time when surgeons performed a hysterectomy on her without her consent - this unfortunately happened regularly to African American women, and Fannie is trying to impact change by speaking out about what happened to her. She went to register to vote but she’d had to leave school at 12 so she didn’t have much literacy, she had a hard, hard life, and she gave testimony during Democratic National Convention about the experience of African American people. Her speech was televised, and people really responded to her story. She famously said: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired”. In this portrait she’s participating in a march from Memphis to Mississippi when they were advocating for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which was subsequently passed, signed by Lyndon B Johnson which banned racial discrimination in voting.
What I love about this portrait is that Fannie had the bravery and courage to speak out about what she had been forced to endure and it was her very citizenship rights that she was protecting.”
Henry Mayer, The Awakening, Published in Puck 20 February 1915
“This piece demonstrates how certain states gave women suffrage at different times. In 1870 the suffrage movement had to switch tactics - after the two Amendments setting the movement back, they immediately proposed a new amendment but the 19th wasn’t ratified until 1920, so in the meantime, between 1870 and 1915, they applied pressure to individual states to enfranchise women, and the women were lobbying state legislators trying to get the men who governed each state to give women the vote.
You can see in this really beautiful lithograph the states where women had the vote in 1915, not only Wyoming (which, when it transitioned from territory to state, grandfathered in the right for women to vote) but also Colorado (which was the first state to accord women the vote by changing its laws) and California. In the image Lady Liberty is holding her everlasting flame as she strides across the US and all these women are straining with their arms outstretched, it’s a very dramatic image.”
Votes For Women A Portrait of Persistence is curated by Kate Clarke Lemay, historian and director of Portal, Portrait Gallery’s Scholarly Center, National Portrait Gallery.
Running until 5 January 2020 the exhibition is part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, “Because of Her Story” which undertakes to research, collect, document display and share the compelling story of women, read more at womenshistory.si.edu.
Read more about Votes For Women at https://npg.si.edu/exhibition/votes-for-women
Lilly Martin Spencer, The War Spirit at Home, 1866 , Oil on canvas, The Newark Museum, Purchase 1944 Wallace M. Scudder Bequest Fund
Get Thee Behind Me, (Mrs.) Satan!, Thomas Nast, 1872, Wood engraving on paper, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Artist: Sallie E. Garrity Albumen silver print, c. 1893, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Hedwig Reicher as Columbia in Suffrage Pageant Sitter: (Non-Portrait); Publisher: Bain News Service Photograph, March 3, 1913, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Fannie Lou Hamer, Artist: Charmian Reading, Gelatin silver print, 1966
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © Family of Charmian Reading
The Awakening, Sitter: (Non-Portrait), Artist: Henry Mayer, Chromolithograph
February 20, 1915, Cornell University - The PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography