Interpreting the Legacy of Women’s Suffrage at Museums and Historic Sites is an invaluable guide for public historians and practitioners who wish to share an updated historic narrative that is inclusive of the full breadth of the movement, including the pervasive bias and racism. This book acknowledges the barriers faced by history practitioners, from the difficulty in finding materials that document the political actions by women of color, to our own reluctance to broach this disparity, and then offers practical solutions and techniques for bringing about a larger shift in organizational culture.
To begin, this book includes a chronological primer on the US women’s suffrage movement and the events around the 50th, 75th, and finally the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment that took place in 2020. Additionally, four women’s history practitioners share case studies from their work at the National Woman’s Party, the Frances Willard House, and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. Each organization is moving forward to confront the racist tactics, or documented racism within their own history. The final case study written by Chick History showcases their multi-year project to digitize and make available family and local history related to African American women’s political history in Tennessee before 1930. The case studies can be used as models for best practices, cautionary examples of lessons learned, and can be replicated at sites of all sizes.
Lastly, the book provides an expansive list of online resources as well as a discussion guide on the history of women’s voting rights. Interpreting the Legacy of Women’s Suffrage at Museums and Historic Sites will be helpful to both practitioners and community organizations as they engage in public discussions or convene focus groups around the sensitive topics of bias and racism within the larger women’s suffrage movement.
Page Harrington is the past executive director of the National Woman’s Party at the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument (formerly Sewall-Belmont House & Museum). Harrington had direct responsibility over all operations, staff, and administration as well as oversight of historic property and archival collection of 30,000 pieces. During her tenure she curated exhibits and guided collection staff and interns on maintenance and conservation of the nationally recognized archive of suffrage artifacts, photographs, textiles, and rare books. She created partnerships with nationally and internationally noted academic scholars and universities that allowed NWP to expand education programs connecting historical content to current political and social topical issues for women today. This included active collaboration with national philanthropic and educational partners including Kettering Foundation, Girl Scouts of the USA, Library of Congress, and National Archive Foundation to explore 21st century methods of engaging public around American history themes.
List of Illustrations
Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Expanding and Reframing Women’s Suffrage
Chapter 3: Milestones and Memorialization of Women’s Suffrage
Chapter 4: Revealing Racial Basis in Women’s Suffrage
Chapter 5: A United Womanhood: The General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Pursuit of Suffrage, Alyssa Constad
Chapter 6: The National Woman's Party, Jennifer Krafchik
Chapter 7: Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells, A Project of the Frances Willard House Museum, Lori Osborn
Chapter 8: Making Women's History Visible
Chapter 9: Protecting the Legacy: Documenting and Digitizing African American Women’s Political History Prior to 1930, Rebecca Price
Chapter 10: Inviting New Perspectives through Community Dialog
Chapter 11: The New Legacy of Suffrage
Appendix A: Timeline
Appendix B: Resources
Appendix C: Bibliography
Appendix D: AASLH 19th Amendment Centennial Value Statement
About the Authors
Interpreting the Legacy of Women's Suffrage is an essential and encouraging read not only for public historians, but for all historians and educators as well as all who are interested in learning women's history. While not dismissing or denying the racism in the suffrage movement, Harrington presents an outstanding context to examine this important history. The case studies used help demonstrate how unconscious assumptions and unconscious racism often define and determine the very questions asked. The author uses concrete examples to lay the important groundwork and offers a guide to challenge and change long-held methodology. The citations and references are a treasure trove for anyone interested in telling a multidimensional and multicultural American history.
Harrington’s Interpreting the Legacy of Women’s Suffrageat Museums and Historic Sites offers a much-needed guide for museums and public historians to include the reality of racism in the suffrage story. But it’s much more than that. Readers will not only discover a concise, inclusive and readable history of the suffrage movement, but will also be challenged to see exclusion and racism in many of the other historical narratives surrounding all of us.
Harrington’s Interpreting the Legacy of Women’s Suffrage provides key strategies for how public historians can access the dynamic new scholarship about diverse voting activists and reveal these histories to their audiences. More than a how-to manual, Harrington’s analysis is grounded in her decades of public history experience that allows for an honest assessment of how the white, middle-class perspective has influenced the delivery of information and the necessity of collaborative engagements to acknowledge the full force of complex and divergent issues within women’s suffrage. It is the book we’ve long needed and is certain to make a difference for public historians who use it to reassess their interpretation.
Written by a leading public historian, Harrington’s book is a fascinating account of how the history of the woman suffrage movement has been remembered, interpreted, and commemorated, and of the challenges faced by decision-makers at museums and historic sites eager to present that history more accurately and inclusively. Featuring several case studies by archivists and museum professionals who have grappled with these challenges, it offers practical advice on such issues as how to present suffragists often lauded as icons as complex historical figures with feet of clay. The book offers sage advice to groups eager to address racial bias and systematic racism within their own histories, and to help museum visitors understand the roles of racism as well as sexism in the long struggle for equal voting rights that continues to this day.
Make no mistake. Dealing with racism in U.S. history is no easy task, especially when we combine it with women’s history. Harrington offers a compelling argument for doing just that. 'Instead of pushing aside these difficult issues, we should push through them,' she argues. And she offers practical advice based on four case studies and her own years of experience. This is not about finding 'good' or 'bad' historical actors. It is about understanding the impact of systemic racism on all of us. Harrington’s voice of compassion and common sense offers a pathway to action. If you care about telling stories of U.S. history that respect the past and inform the future, this book is for you. Read it!
In my past experience, from 1998-2002, as the director of a museum of women’s history, I was continually struck by how little was known, and acknowledged in public narratives, about this history. All too often, women’s history was simply invisible. Many scholars were working hard to address these lacunae, but few museums brought these stories to public light. The lack of diversity among museum staffs and boards further exacerbated the problem, skewing the women’s history that was presented. All too often, we weren’t looking for, let alone exhibiting, accounts and documentation of the roles that women of color, including Black women, played in American History.
Interpreting the Legacy of Women’s Suffrage at Museums and Historic Sites, by Page Harrington, former director of the Sewell-Belmont House & Museum [now the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument], argues that museums must recognize and correct the limited and incomplete histories of the women’s suffrage movement that all too many continue to promote. The volume, therefore, moves us further down the path of accurately interpreting the enfranchisement movement, and, as such, serves as a valuable resource for all types of museums.
Harrington clearly and compellingly makes the case for museums to rethink, refresh, and re-interpret women’s suffrage in all of its nuance, complexity, and in light of the traditional “great White women” approach that omits, often glaringly, issues of systemic racism that plagued the movement, the role of Black suffragists, and the crusade’s full and expansive chronology, from the late 18th century to the present.
She offers candid case studies, practical examples of effective research methodologies that go beyond the often-limited holdings of standard repositories, suggestions for community dialogues that can enable a museum to engage its publics with its revised narratives, and a comprehensive women’s enfranchisement timeline.
The book contains multiple practical and doable strategies and processes that can aid all museums, large and small, in furthering their goals of inclusion, equity, and historical accuracy. It provides material, methods, and incentives for the substantial reframing of the women’s suffrage story. How timely, as we approach the centennial of the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment and the semiquincentennial of the Declaration of Independence, and how essential, if museums are to continue to be considered authentic and trusted truth-tellers, especially about the triumphs and tragedies of American democracy.
History is fascinating and messy. Women are heroic and flawed. In Page Harrington's call to re-examine interpretations of the suffrage movement, she makes the case that museums and historic sites must do the difficult and often painful work of acknowledging the racism that influenced some of their most exalted heroines. To remain relevant, staffs and boards must be open to more inclusive and accurate narratives that confront the bias embedded in suffragist stories. Harrington insists that she and other history practitioners have a responsibility to foster such initiatives and collaborate with communities whose views have been excluded.
Harrington's book is valuable even for those already familiar with the challenges of interpreting women's history for the public. The clear organization and language, useful case studies, and examples of successes and failures provide practical insights to help us all tell a broader, more truthful story of the women's suffrage movement.