Like many institutions in New York City, the New-York Historical Society is temporarily closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19. Our exhibition Women March, which commemorates the centennial of women’s suffrage and celebrates 200 years of women’s collective action, is currently off limits. But we are committed to sharing its ideas from afar.
The New York Life Foundation has been an important partner in this endeavor. New York Life Insurance Company has a long tradition of supporting voting rights and advancement for women that dates back to the 1890s, when the company hired its first female agents—decades before women had the right to vote, and well over 50 years before federal law prohibited gender discrimination in employment or ensured that women were entitled to equal access to credit and housing. While Women March focuses primarily on collective groups of women, it also features biographies of 54 instrumental figures in women’s activism over the past 200 years, including Susan B. Anthony and less-familiar activists. By inspiring and galvanizing unnamed, marching foot soldiers, their lives’ work has helped create an unstoppable movement for women’s full and equal citizenship.
In fact, New York Life has an intriguing connection to Anthony. Several of her close family members—including her father and brother—were employed as New York Life agents and Anthony herself was one of New York Life’s first female policyholders. She actually used the cash value of her life insurance policy as collateral to help get women admitted to the University of Rochester in New York for the first time in 1900.
Anthony was drawn to activism through the abolitionist and temperance movements. She became an avid women’s rights activist through her political partnership with fellow activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton after they met in the early 1850s. In 1868, the pair became the editors of the political magazine, Revolution, and in 1869, they founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). They also co-authored History of Woman Suffrage in 1881 along with Matilda Joslyn Gage, providing their contemporaries—and historians ever since—with a clear narrative and documentation of their efforts. Their feeling of betrayal by the omission of the mention of gender in the 15th Amendment, which declares that U.S. citizens’ right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged . . . on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” precipitated a split within the suffrage movement. Anthony continued to press for suffrage her entire life and was arrested for attempting to vote in 1872. A statue of Anthony, Stanton and another women’s rights pioneer, Sojourner Truth, is scheduled to be erected in New York City’s Central Park on August 26, 2020, the centenary of the ratification of the 19 Amendment, which gave women the vote.
Of course, Anthony was not the only important figure in the history of women’s suffrage. There are also less well-known figures to note, such as the five Rollin sisters: part of an elite, free black family in Charleston, South Carolina, they became staunch activists for equal rights across race and gender during the Reconstruction period. In 1869, Charlotte Rollin made a speech on the floor of South Carolina’s statehouse where she declared, “We ask suffrage not as a favor, not as a privilege, but as a right based on the grounds that we are human beings and as such entitled to all human rights.”
Tony-nominated actress Ariana DeBose stepped in to help the exhibition honor another unsung activist and orator, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. At the National Woman’s Rights Convention stage in 1866, Harper spoke to the assembled audience and offered a prescient, powerful argument that women’s and African American’s struggles for freedom were “all bound up together.” DeBose’s performance, embedded below, is projected at life-size in the exhibition:
The story of women’s collective action is an ongoing saga of engagement with democracy. Over the past two centuries, American women’s activism has faced a complex array of issues. The toolkit of strategies has evolved, but activists from the 19th century—like Anthony, Harper, or Rollin—would recognize the underpinnings of modern petitions, speeches, social networking, marches, and elections. We hope the spirit of Women March serves as a powerful reminder during Women’s History Month and beyond of the progress that is possible when people stand together.
Written by Heather Nesle, President of the New York Life Foundation, and the Center for Women’s History Curatorial Team