Tag Archives: Suffrage

2020: the Commemorative Year

One of the major themes of this blog has been how we remember history: what we choose to remember, what we choose to celebrate (or exploit), and what we choose to forget or ignore. This year promises to be very interesting in the realm of “anniversary history”, with two big commemorations crowding the calendar: the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower in Massachusetts and the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment enfranchising American women after a long, long struggle. I don’t think anything else—certainly not the 200th anniversary of the Missouri Compromise (1820) or the 300th anniversary of the South Sea Bubble (1720)— can compete with these epic events. Yet looking ahead at the succession of initiatives and events designed to commemorate these two markers, I am struck by one notable difference: the Suffrage Centennial seems to be a truly national movement, with major events in Washington, D.C., every single state, and many localities as well, while the Mayflower anniversary seems much more restricted: to Massachusetts, and even to the descendants of the Pilgrim passengers. This might just be my American perspective: the Mayflower commemoration certainly has a broader geographic scope, incorporating Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the Wampanoag Nation, encompassing the Aquinnah and Mashpee tribes. My perception might also shaped by the fact the Suffrage Centennial is already very much in full swing, so we shall see.

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Plans for the Suffrage Centennial have clearly been in the works for years, and their most dramatic manifestation was three major exhibitions in Washington: Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote at the National Archives Museum (May 10, 2019- January 3, 2021), Shall Not be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote at the Library of Congress (June 4, 2019-September, 2020), and Votes for Women: a Portrait of Persistence  at the National Portrait Gallery (March, 2019-January 5, 2020). As you can see, the last exhibition ends this weekend, but there is a companion catalog with wonderful essays and images. These exhibitions are just the beginning of a wave of suffrage remembrance and interpretation, washing over the nation: the website of the Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative is a great place to go for events and resources but every state seems to have its own central site as well, linking to institutional and local initiatives. Here in Massachusetts, Suffrage100MA, the Women’s Suffrage Celebration Coalition, sponsors features like the “Suffragist of the Month” at the Commonwealth Museum, but is hardly the extent of commemorative activity: the Massachusetts Historical Society had a very visual exhibit entitled “Can She Do It?” Massachusetts Debates a Woman’s Right to Vote up over last summer, the Boston Athenaeum has an ongoing “Eye of the Expert: (Anti) Suffrage program focused on items from its collection, the Schlesinger Library at Harvard will feature Seeing Citizens: Picturing American Women’s Fight for the Vote from March 23 to October 3, 2020, and there are local events all around me commencing next month. This very layered exploration of the coming of universal suffrage has been extremely comprehensive, examining the complexities of the struggle, divisions of class and race, and all sorts of attendant aspects (and materials!)—and there’s a lot more to learn and see.

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pixlr_20200101133156977Ace of Spades card (verso and recto) from a c. 1915 deck published by the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co., Boston Athenaeum.

By contrast, the coming commemoration of the Mayflower’s arrival doesn’t seem very layered or very national: there are no events in Washington that I could find. The official US website for the commemoration is Plymouth400, Inc., which reports that the April 24 Opening Ceremony will be a two-hour event of historical content, musical headliners, interpretive readings, choreographed movement, original productions, and visual narratives to create a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. The Plymouth 400 Legacy Time Capsule will be introduced, and the first items will be placed inside by special guests. Honoring the past and celebrating the future, each of the commemoration themes – exploration, innovation, self-governance, religious expression, immigration, and thanksgiving – will be presented in creative ways. Invited participants include state and federal officials, representatives of the UK, The Netherlands, colony partners, and many more. Besides this extravaganza, it’s all about the ship: the Mayflower II (1957), which has been under repair in Mystic, Connecticut for several years. The newly-restored ship will sail to Boston for a maritime festival in May (docking right next to the Constitution, which should look cool), and then proceed home to Plymouth via Provincetown for more festivities in both ports. I do see references to attendant exhibitions on Pilgrim women and the Wampanoags on the Plymouth400 site, but nothing like the diffusion of inspired initiatives associated with the commemoration of suffrage.

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screenshot_20191231-154733_chromeThe Mayflower II seemed to be more of a national story in 1957; on the stop in Provincetownfrom Boston to Plymouth, there will be a “reenactment of the signing of the Mayflower Compact and VIP reception”.

The Plymouth400 website might not be comprehensive but it is all we have to go on; it is also, very decidedly, not a resource, with minimal effort toward edification. When compared to the much more impressive official British commemoration website Mayflower400 it is exposed for just what it is: a Chamber of Commerce production. After watching all of the poignant expressions of remembrance associated with the commemoration of each and every phase of World War One over the past few years, I am not surprised to see the sophistication, earnestness, and creativity of the British commemoration of the Mayflower voyage, which will include the opening of a Mayflower Trail through and outside Plymouth, multiple exhibits, public art and music projects, living history events, a muster, festivals, illuminations, a religious history conference, and even sporting events. The website links to resources and is itself a resource, with digital maps exploring the sites associated with the Mayflower itself and every single passenger and crew member. It brings all these people to Plymouth and then to America ( some via Leiden): why can’t we have something similar that shows where they went once they got here? As I am not a Mayflower descendant, I am forming the opinion that if I want to feel a real connection to those who left England in 1620 I had better make my way to Plymouth in Devon rather than Plymouth in Bristol County.

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screenshot_20200101-153517_chromeThe official British program and interactive maps on the Mayflower400 website, which also includes artwork that has been seldom seen (over here, at least), like Anthony Thompson’s 1938 painting The ‘Mayflower’ Leaving Plymouth, 1620 @Essex County Council.


Victory New Year, 1919

All New Years are special as they are embedded with thoughts of hopefulness and fresh starts, but I think the dawn of 1919 might have been particularly so: the themes of victory and peace following the Great War ring out in all the accounts of its celebration, which might also have been particularly joyous as it marked the last “liquid” New Year with the onset of Prohibition approaching. The New York Times proclaimed 1919 the “Victory New Year” and the Boston Globe bid adieu to a battle-scarred pirate-gladiator representing 1918. Probably the best image expressing contemporary hopes for the coming year was a seemingly-ubiquitous poster equating world peace, (lady) liberty and (American) prosperity produced by the United Cigar Stores Company: this theme is manifest in all of the accounts of New Year celebrations and forecasts which I sampled, and most mentions of Prohibition were below the fold!

Victory New Year 1919 NYT

New Year 1919 Boston Globe

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I think I must have posted on all of the New Year’s traditions and symbols over the past eight (!!!) years, and horseshoes, pigs, toadstools, shamrocks, and chimney-sweeps are still in evidence on New Year’s postcards in 1919, but change was also inevitable, as the dominant German postcard industry collapsed with the onset of the war, and domestic producers gradually altered the style and substance of holiday cards. During and right after the war, there are a profusion of babies and comforting hearth scenes on holiday postcards, but also more patriotic and elevated expressions. The French influence seems strong, but American illustrators also shaped the image of seasons’ greetings—with emphasis on both domestic prosperity and universal peace: a major cultural consequence of World War I is the emergence of peace on earth as a popular holiday sentiment.

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New Year 1919 Card

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New Year RuzickaFrench silk New Years’ postcards for 1918 and 1919 featuring the Allied flags, Europeana; Xavier Sager and Santa planting the American flag on the North Pole postcards, 1919, Delcampe.net; Santa’s gift of peace poster by the U.S. Food Administration, Library of Congress; Rudolph Ruzicka holiday card for 1918-1919, Harvard.

But all was not completely calm in the United States on January 1, 1919. Deaths from the Spanish Flu epidemic of the fall had dwindled, but they were still being reported. As President Wilson made his way to the Paris Peace Conference, there was both evident pride and anxiety about America’s evolving role in world affairs. As always, everyone was concerned about the economy. The front page of the Boston Herald shows a cartoon in which all of Paris’s landmarks have been renamed “Wilson” (Place de la Wilson, La Tour Wilson, etc.), but also features an interview with Massachusetts Governor-elect Calvin Coolidge who prescribes “thrift and industry” and expresses what seems to be a very real concern that now that Europe is peaceful, all Americans of European descent will return there! This is Calvin Coolidge in a new light for me (remember, I am not an American historian), expressing concerns over the labor market as well as the loss of “so many men who during their stay with us have given us so many models of good citizenship” and suggesting cash payments as enticements for these men to stay put!

New Year Boston Herald

New Year Coolidge Collage

The Suffragist leader Alice Paul also identified 1919 as the “Victory New Year” as she was determined to bring the long struggle for votes for women to a triumphant close in that year. President Wilson’s commitment to freedom and democracy overseas was recognized as a wonderful opportunity to expose his hypocrisy at home (as this was an age when people recognized hypocrisy) and so the Suffragists burned “watchfires” in front of the White House, “to consume every outburst of the President on freedom until his advocacy of freedom has been translated into support of political freedom for American women”. From New Year’s Day into February, the watchfires burned, despite the cold, the harassment, and the arrests, igniting the final push towards the passage of the 19th Amendment in the Congress in May and June of 1919, and its eventual ratification in August of 1920. And so it seems that victories were both in hand and at hand on New Year’s Day, 1919.

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The+Suffragist,+June+14,+1919_NMAH-AHB2013q013138Library of Congress & National Museum of American History.


Hildegarde Hawthorne Hits Salem

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s granddaughter Hildegarde (1871-1952), a prolific author of ghost stories, garden books, biographies and travel narratives as well as an ardent feminist and suffragist, returned to her ancestral city the year after its great fire (which she mistakenly dates to 1913 rather than 1914) so that she might gather material for her forthcoming book, Old Seaport Towns of New England. With “Sister” in tow, she disembarks into a bustling city which she clearly does not find as charming as Newburyport to the north or Newport to the south. The “insistent present” is bothersome in Salem, and she feels much closer to the spirit of her illustrious grandfather when she looks at the “tenements” of Union Street than the new House of the Seven Gables, “which used to belong to some relatives of ours”. She does, of course, love Chestnut Street.

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Chestnut Street and the Beverly Bridge, Salem Side, by John Albert Seaford, from Old Seaport Towns of New England (1916)

And there’s lots more to see obviously, BUT (it seems like there is a but hanging over every sentence) new Salem or invented Salem seems to be intruding on old Salem too much:  You can easily spend a couple of days looking up the houses where famous men were born in this solid old city (for a feminist, she doesn’t seem to care about the house of famous Salem women). They seem to have had had an extraordinary hankering for the place. Not but what Salem must have been a particularly beautiful place in the days when these notable births were most common. It is now, in many spots, though it has lost much of its looks with advancing age.  For, oddly enough,as it becomes older it becomes younger, and the youth is not an improvement. After two days in town, Hildegarde left Salem at sunset, over the Beverly Bridge, vaguely disturbed by the conflicting impressions of her noisy, commercial present, that will not let you be, and the obstinate power of her past, equally insistent. It seems to me as if these last lines could have been written in 2016 as easily as 1916.

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Two of Hildegarde’s other titles; Hildegarde, second from left, at the New York Womens’ Suffrage Parade, 1913, ©Paul Thompson, Getty Images.


A Salem Suffragette

Well, today is Women’s Equality Day, designated in 1971 to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which finally granted women the right to vote after a long struggle for suffrage. I’m embarrassed to admit that I never knew this was a “day”, but it seems as good a time as any to shine a spotlight on a Salem suffragist (I’m an English historian, so I used my preferred “Suffragette” in the title, but the more appropriate American term is “Suffragist”). I’m certain that there was more than one fierce advocate of votes for women in progressive Salem, but Margery Bedinger of Forrester Street committed at a crucial time, and went on to lead a very interesting and independent life. And I have pictures! Margery was born in Salem in 1891, the daughter of the Rector of St. Peter’s Church (and the granddaughter of the Ambassador to Denmark). She matriculated at Smith College first, but graduated from Radcliffe in 1913. In 1914 and 1915, she was one of many members of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association campaigning actively in support of a state referendum to give women the right to vote. The suffragists and their supporters walked, ran, trolleyed, biked and drove all around the Commonwealth, distributing their colorful materials and holding open-air forums, and capped off their campaign with of parade of 9000 supporters (including Helen Keller) on October 16. Despite their efforts, the referendum failed, and Massachusetts women did not gain the vote until the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920. Margery was no doubt disappointed by the returns of 1915, but she moved steadfastly forward (and west–where suffrage had triumphed first), completing her graduate degree in Library Science and becoming the first female librarian at the United States Military Academy at West Point in the 1920s (and later publishing a “spirited” article about the Academy entitled “The Goose Step at West Point” in the New Republic), assuming a succession of library directorships at academic libraries in Montana, Washington, and New Mexico, authoring an authoritative book on Native American jewelry, traveling the world, and finally retiring to Hawaii!

Margery Bedinger was an incredibly accomplished woman but I only discovered her through another incredibly accomplished woman: Florence Hope Luscomb (1887-1985), the leader of the Massachusetts Suffrage movement and one of the first women to graduate from the distinguished architectural program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (this was just the beginning of a long lifetime of social and political activism). Luscomb’s papers are at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University, and while I was looking around for things related to her architectural practice, I found Margery, her comrade in 1915. And here is Margery at work and at play, in those interesting times a century ago.

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Margery Bedinger of Salem (front and center) and her Massachusetts suffragist colleagues on their “auto tour” across the state, 1915, & Margery and her horse somewhere out west a bit later and in close-up, from the Florence Hope Luscomb Archive at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. Below: a broadside and paraphernalia from the 1915 campaign–the back of the fan reads “keep cool and raise a breeze for suffrage”.

Suffrage Broadside 1915 MHS

Suffrage mementos MA


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