From Greenwich Village to the Nation, Leading the Push for Women’s Rights

In 1914, Marie Jenney Howe, a writer and feminist activist, wrote, “No one doubts that women are changing. We need an appropriate word which will register this fact.” Feminism was that word, and at a meeting in a women’s club a year earlier, she had asked, “What is feminism?” Just as women were changing, so was the persona of the suffragist. She was no longer the staid woman who circulated petitions and held hearings to advocate change. She was more willing to be a little loud.

Those more rebellious in spirit cast off their corsets (a mannequin in the show features this new, liberating uniform: a free-flowing smock); rallied for labor rights, racial equality and peace; spoke about the need for birth control (a topic so taboo that the mere mention of it could lead to arrest). A poster advocating responsible family planning raised the question “Mothers: Can you afford to have a large family?” Some of these posters were translated into Hebrew and Italian in order to reach working-class immigrants.


A silent protest against the St. Louis Riots of 1917 during a march down Fifth Avenue. Credit James Weldon Johnson Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

But not all suffragists considered themselves feminists. Suffragists didn’t always agree on how the movement should represent womanhood in general, but the clamor over the right to vote seemed to quiet these ideological divisions.

The embrace of cross-cultural issues introduced suffrage to a broader group of women and enlivened the campaign in a way that a short time before seemed completely unimaginable. This is represented in the second gallery, which takes us beyond Greenwich Village via memorabilia representing protesters throughout the city. The new suffragist, “Hotbed” contends, was someone who inserted herself into (and then co-opted strategies from) a larger movement of protest and change.

The Village radicals were particularly good at myth making. Their politicking involved a good deal of orchestration and agitation. Ida Rauh, a lawyer, artist and prominent Village activist, arrived in Union Square at one point in 1916 to illegally distribute birth control pamphlets in a chauffeured limousine — to better ensure she would get noticed and then arrested. Mainstream suffragists soon borrowed from these headline-making tactics.


A propaganda poster from 1917. Credit New-York Historical Society

They also saw an opportunity to carefully choreograph and sell an image of suffrage. A replica of a mobile wagon filled with distributable suffrage ephemera is in the third, transitional gallery. There are also buttons, postcards and pins that have slogans with cutesy, gendered language, like “I’m wedded to the cause.” Gender-specific items, like cookbooks and pepper shakers, were repurposed as suffrage propaganda.

Although women won the right to vote in New York State 100 years ago this month, the final gallery hardly lingers on that triumph because the celebration and united front didn’t last very long. Images showing suffragist support for World War I signal a significant divide. Wartime xenophobia revealed how the suffrage campaign never escaped its race or ethnic privilege — white women thought suffrage would ultimately strengthen the white vote. (An article in the previous gallery carrying the headline “Colored Women in Suffrage Parade” and the subhead “Already it is said to have caused dissension in ranks” confirms as much, but by the time of the First World War, the xenophobia had become even more pronounced.) Foreign-born radicals in the Village who were against the war were considered threats to national unity and were deported. Among them was the well-known anarchist Emma Goldman, who chastised pro-war suffragists for being political “chameleons.”

The exhibition’s curators clean up this messy conclusion by displaying images of more recent activism. The one that will most likely resonate with us today, and the final image of the show, is of the 2017 women’s march in Washington, the largest single-day demonstration in United States history. Crowd scientists estimated that 470,000 people were there. More than three times the size of the crowd at President Trump’s inauguration a day earier. President Trump claimed the media misrepresented this number because to him it looked like a million or more attended his inauguration. This dispute made headlines nationwide.

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