Since 1995, the month of March in the United States has been designated as Women’s History Month. This year, it began with great fanfare and anticipation of the commemoration of the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which removed sex as a barrier to the vote for women in 1920. Anticipating a need, New-York Historical joined with a few of the city’s cultural institutions to create the Women’s Suffrage NYC Centennial Consortium, a website and hashtag where related programs throughout the city could be listed and promoted.
On Feb. 28, New-York Historical’s Center for Women’s History opened an extraordinary new exhibition, Women March, in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery. It explores 200 years of American women’s collective action and activism around suffrage, citizenship, and political empowerment. On March 1, the fifth annual Diane and Adam E. Max Conference on Women’s History assembled a stellar group of scholars and thinkers to discuss these themes in a sold-out day of conversations and keynotes.
Days later, our world changed. Communities, companies, and institutions across the globe, including the New-York Historical Society, have shut down or closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19. As a historian, I look to the past for patterns and signs of progress and discover lingering comfort in beholding the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
In the previous weeks, I’ve found myself returning to the narrative of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic—the falsely dubbed “Spanish Flu”—which felled over 50 million people around the globe, including 670,000 in the United States. Remarkably like today’s COVID-19 coronavirus, it disrupted and restricted daily life. It also began in the spring, went underground over the summer, and returned for deadlier second and third waves in the fall and winter of 1918-19. If history is to repeat itself, I have reasoned, we will have a reprieve soon, during which time a fast-tracked vaccine and/or cure will emerge before a second wave hits. It may be wishful thinking, but it keeps me going.
But there’s another thing about the story of the 1918 pandemic that also keeps my wheels turning: why have we, until now, all but forgotten about it? Was the episode and failed efforts to contain it just too horrific to memorialize? Perhaps there is some truth to the adage attributed to Al Smith: “The American people never carry an umbrella,” the reform-minded New York governor said. “They prepare to walk in eternal sunshine.” Smith—a native son of the 19th-century-immigrant Lower East Side of Manhattan—rose through the city’s Tammany Hall political machine to win the gubernatorial election on Nov. 5, 1918. That was less than a week before the end of World War I, and in the midst of the lethal second wave of the flu, during which time two-thirds of the city’s approximately 30,000 total fatalities for the virus occurred. Reports of Smith’s frenzied push towards election night—with rally upon rally drawing many hundreds, if not thousands, of people in New York’s towns and cities—include nary a mention of the influenza, despite some tested knowledge of the value of “social distancing.” (That fall, for example, mandates limited the opening and closing hours of business to slow the disease’s spread in New York City.)
Several weeks later, trainloads of New Yorkers assembled in Albany to witness the new governor’s inauguration. Nursing a sore throat, Smith acknowledged the joyful crowd celebrating outside the statehouse, piled together cheek-by-jowl. During this same time, the country was coming out in virus-spreading force to greet their local heroes returning from the battlefields of Europe. Again, fears of the deadly flu were not only underplayed—they were barely evident in the larger record of the day.
Some speculate that one reason may be because if we are to celebrate any aspect of the story, it is women who emerge as the heroes. While male doctors felt self-doubt and humiliation at their failure to conquer the virus, women rolled up their sleeves to nurse the sick both at home and at the hospitals in hour-by-hour drudgery that risked their own lives. The professional nurses—a growing cadre that was further emboldened by serving in the amphitheater of war— would look back upon this time with a feeling of great fulfillment and exhilaration, along with fear. Their response to the epidemic legitimized their work and empowered them with a new kind of respect.
More broadly, the severity of the flu—and the fact that it tended to kill more men than women—caused a worker shortage that was exacerbated by the war. In unprecedented numbers, proto-Rosie the Riveters took jobs outside the home, working in some areas like manufacturing that were previously the exclusive purview of men. And by 1920, with their important war and influenza work as nurses behind them, along with slowly growing economic power and social independence through other employment opportunities, women could ever more profoundly demonstrate how outrageous it was that they still could not vote. The rest, as they say, is history.
There indeed can be such silver linings buried not too deeply within the narrative of the past. As scholars with a particular eye for women’s contributions, the Center for Women’s History team continually discovers fresh and exciting ways to enhance and amplify the public’s understanding of history by considering women’s larger impact on the story. We’ve grown fond of asserting that every month is Women’s History Month at the New-York Historical Society. Although March 2020 may be ending with trepidation and uncertainty, we can count on history to reassure us that there will always be many more months and years to come for us to carry on our work.
Written by Valerie Paley, senior vice president, chief historian, and director of the Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society