The Library of Congress’s exhibition, “Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote,” is a visually rich celebration of the women who laid the groundwork for women’s suffrage in the United States. Discussing the origins of the movement, the activities immediately leading up to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, and the long struggle for women of color to secure the right to vote, the exhibit makes abundantly clear how complex and hard fought the process was, and may continue to be for some. One image in particular struck me both for what it shows and for what it does not make evident.
“The Awakening,” an illustration from the February 20, 1915 edition of the magazine Puck, is situated in a section of the exhibition that discusses successful legislation for women’s suffrage in western states and territories as a precursor to the 19th Amendment. By early 1915 you can see that women in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Kansas had secured the right to vote. A female figure wearing a cape inscribed with “Votes for Women,” carries a torch and points eastward toward a sea of women eager to join the numbers of women in the west who could vote.
I carried this notion of unfulfilled rights with me to another exhibit section labeled “More to the Movement,” which discusses how, even after the 19th Amendment extended voting rights to women across the country, many women of color continued to face an uphill battle to securing the vote. The exhibition notes how Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, addressing many white suffrage leaders’ unwillingness to support a constitutional amendment that would enfranchise black men as well as a lack of commitment to anti-lynching laws in the last half of the 19th century, stated: “You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.” The exhibit includes portraits of African American suffragists such as Sojourner Truth, Harper and Mary Church Terrell, whose collective work over many decades helped to bring the vote to African American women.
As the exhibit notes, scholars have begun to examine the role of African American, American Indian, Latina and Asian American suffragists, but much more remains to be explored. The Prints & Photographs Division’s collections, as well as those of other Library of Congress reading rooms, are waiting to be mined for more evidence of the role of women of color in the suffrage movement.
Wondering what other images we might have of such suffragists, I did a quick search of the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, who is represented by another picture in the exhibit, appears in the photo below from our George Grantham Bain Collection. Lee participated in the 1912 suffrage parade in New York City, but as the exhibition text points out, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act still prevented Lee from voting even after the 19th Amendment passed.Likewise, Native Americans were denied citizenship for periods, and were later confronted with many of the same voting limitations as African Americans, including literacy tests and poll taxes. Based on my reading about Native American suffragists, I was pleased to find also in the Bain Collection a picture of Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and a graduate of American University’s Washington College of Law. Baldwin marched for women’s suffrage in Washington, D.C. in 1913.
We invite you to do more looking, and to build on existing knowledge of the suffrage movement in the United States. As always, feel free to contact us through our Ask a Librarian service if you have questions about searching our collections.
- Explore the online version of the “Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote.” If you can, visit the physical exhibit in person through September 2020!
- View images from the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog that contain women and suffrage in their descriptions.
- Check out our reference aids that display selected images related to “Votes for Women” and “Women’s Rights.”
- Learn about, and view pictures from, the George Grantham Bain Collection.
- Contact us through Ask a Librarian.