March is Women’s History Month, and 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote. The movement to win voting rights for women (commonly known as the women’s suffrage movement) had its roots in Seneca Falls, New York, at a convention held in 1848. Although this was not the first time that politically active women rallied together to drive change, this was the catalyst that caused the movement for women’s suffrage to take off and become a force to be reckoned with.
So historically significant was this convention that on December 28, 1980, Congress established Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls to preserve the site and the history that was created there. So I was honored when the park invited me to present three annual solo exhibitions leading up to this year’s centennial.
My first exhibition was presented in 2018 and centered on Theodosia Ford (1741-1824), an unsung heroine of the American Revolutionary War. Ford opened up her home to serve as George Washington’s military headquarters for which she endured much hardship as a widow with several children.
I selected 12 photographs from a collection of almost 100 that I created under a commission from the National Park Service. Each print was accompanied by a compelling narrative I wrote. The events and dates were factual, but I presented Ford’s story as an imagined diary to dramatize what she might have felt during this very difficult time in history. The exhibition was covered by several media outlets and benefited from the park’s peak attendance during the summer months.
I then spent many additional months and expense researching, writing, printing, matting, and framing photographs and wall cards for the 2019 exhibition. This one was going to focus on the abolitionist aspects of the women’s rights movement.
Simultaneously, I initiated the research and preparation for the 2020 exhibition, which led me to The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote by Brooke Kroeger. I was fascinated by the title and the unsung history it presented. Before I read The Suffragents, I knew very little about the history of women’s suffrage. All I knew was that it was a movement for social change that resulted in women earning the right to vote.
I was unaware of the major role that the New York captains of industry — all male — played as both leaders and supporters of the women who directed them. The men began their campaign secretly behind the scenes forming the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. They used their money, their power, and their voices. They worked tirelessly and were ridiculed for the part they played. In the end, their collaboration with the women successfully influenced politicians, the press, and the public.
Brooke Kroeger’s writing style kept me engaged. Although the book was extremely detailed, it read like a story not like a history textbook. The reading experience turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It was a captivating story with a very happy ending. The book won the Gold Medal in US History in the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was a finalist for the 2018 Sally and Morris Lasky Prize of the Center for Political History.
Brooke Kroeger is a professor of journalism at the New York University Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. In 2007, she founded NYU’s Global and Joint Program Studies and is the current director. She is an accomplished journalist and has written five books. Her latest achievement is a volume of essays she co-edited with Linda Steiner and Carolyn Kitch called Front Pages, Front Lines: Media and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage.
Inspired by her book, my plan for 2020 was to gather high resolution digital scans of historical photographic portraits of the men she wrote about. Prior to going into photography, I had studied painting in college. So my thought was to combine the two disciplines by digitally painting over the portraits with splashes of color, patterns, symbols, and other expressionistic and abstract touches to bring these dour images to life. Excited by the new dimension this would add to my art, I purchased the necessary hardware and software and started gathering the digital portraits from various archival sources. Unfortunately, this project was not to be.
As I did for my first exhibition in 2018 about Theodosia Ford, I contacted the park to make sure all was set for my next exhibition in 2019. About a month before the installation, their superintendent sent me an email confirming that the exhibition was a go — this one was to be themed on abolition. The drive from my studio to Seneca Falls is several hundred miles and takes about six hours. So, when I arrived, I was stunned to be greeted by a confused staff who claimed they had no idea to expect my arrival to install the exhibition.
To make a long story short, they claimed that the superintendent was on leave and under investigation. Under those circumstances, she had no authority to issue an email on behalf of the park to confirm my exhibit. When I pressed the issue, the acting superintendent corroborated what I heard from the staff. But everyone was mum on details and were not open to working out a solution.
As a lawyer, I know a lot about how investigations are conducted. All of the superintendent’s emails would have been read and my arrival would have been anticipated. Yet, no effort was made to alert me so as to avoid the time, fuel, tolls, meals, hotel, and production expenses that I incurred and that went unreimbursed. And there were several media outlets that had already publicly announced the event. This happened in 2019 and, to date, I have not heard anything further from Women’s Rights National Historical Park.
What is really disappointing, though, is for this to happen during the once-in-a-lifetime celebration of the centennial. This could have been an interpretative goldmine for the park and for the public. And it’s a shame that I was not able to incorporate the little-known history so wonderfully presented in Brooke Kroeger’s book, The Suffragents.
However, we can make the best of the situation — particularly given the extra time and boredom the pandemic has imposed upon many of us — by ordering a copy of this book. It is a fitting way to honor and celebrate the many people — women and men — that have contributed to the civil rights that were established a century ago.
Linda Ruder assisted with the preparation of this article.