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.
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.
Ace 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.
The 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.
The 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.