Women March opens on Feb. 28 and celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment and women’s suffrage by immersing visitors in two centuries of women’s collective action. This action has taken many forms: from abolitionist petitioning to industry-wide garment strikes to massive marches for an Equal Rights Amendment. Yet too often, the significance of this work is eclipsed by more famous leaders who are credited with galvanizing movements. A diverse array of women activists worked tirelessly across the past 200 years to give substantive meaning to American democracy both before and after the fight for the vote.
Perhaps it’s fitting then, that the exhibition itself has been collectively curated by scholars from the Center for Women’s History. Led by Director Valerie Paley, the CWH curatorial team is composed of experts on a variety of topics and periods of American history. (In addition to the folks listed below, the exhibition features the work of current and former Andrew W. Mellon post- and predoctoral fellows Nick Juravich, Caitlin Wiesner, Pamela Walker, Rachel Corbman, and Madeline DeDe-Panken.)
While the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, we wanted to highlight some of our favorite individual objects and images that will be on display in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery starting Feb. 28. Each tells a fascinating story of its own and provides a unique lens on the history of women’s activism.
1839 Petition from the Women of Seneca, NY, and Pin-Back Buttons from the Welfare Rights Movement
Beginning in 1830, hundreds of thousands of women sought to influence national policy by petitioning Congress. Their signatures represented moral opposition to a number of pro-slavery policies, from Texas annexation to the Fugitive Slave Act. The limited effectiveness of such moral appeals became painfully clear in 1836, when the House of Representatives implemented a “gag rule” that automatically tabled all anti-slavery petitions without a hearing. This infuriated women who saw their First Amendment right to petition the government disregarded, intertwining abolitionism and women’s rights ever more closely. The first two signatories in this 1839 petition are Mary Ann and Elizabeth M’Clintock, who attended the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 and also signed its Declaration of Sentiments.
This photograph and these pins highlight the welfare rights movement, which emerged in the 1960s at the intersection of the black freedom movement, women’s liberation, and anti-poverty activism. Many participants were single women of color, and they fought against punitive social policies that prioritized paid labor over caregiving responsibilities and tied the receipt of public benefits to increased surveillance of their families. Fighting for the means to provide for their families and juggling the demands of work, childcare, and activism, these women offered an expansive vision of citizenship that remains unfulfilled to this day. ( Jeanne Gardner Gutierrez, Curatorial Scholar in Women’s History )
Photograph of Dinah, an Army Cook, and a Belva Lockwood Campaign Ribbon
During the Civil War, American women seized new opportunities to expand traditional roles. Their work— both volunteer and paid— helped sustain a nation at war and later rebuild it. This carte de visite was found between the pages of a photo album of the New York National Guard’s Sixth Company, Seventh Regiment in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library. The back contains a handwritten note identifying its subject as Dinah, the camp cook. Dinah was a common name of the time, however, Union soldiers also sometimes used “Dinah” as a catch-all name to refer to all black women in the South. Unlike enslaved men, women could not win freedom through military service. Instead, they worked for the army as cooks, laundresses, and agricultural workers on Union-captured plantations. Although many women came alone or as the family head, Union policymakers promoted marriage at the army camps to manage the huge numbers of enslaved people, who had never been able to marry legally. Black women like Dinah gained freedom, but also became subject to the laws of coverture.
This campaign ribbon features a clever rebus spelling out the last name of Belva Lockwood, a lawyer and the first woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. Before they could even vote, some women claimed the right to run for office. While Victoria Woodhull is often credited as the first woman to run for president in 1871, Lockwood was the first woman whose name was actually printed on presidential ballots. Her 1884 campaign endorsed equal rights, temperance, civil service reform, and citizenship for Native Americans. Despite lacking the right to vote herself, Lockwood won around 4,000 votes in her bid. (Laura Mogulescu, Curator of Women’s History Collections)
Curtain Factory Painting and a Photograph from a Daycare Demonstration
In a show that mostly features photographs and video installations, this painting by Brooklyn-born artist Riva Helfond stands out. Helfond worked in a factory to make ends meet while attending art school, but during the New Deal period, she was hired by the Works Progress Administration to teach printmaking at the Harlem Community Art Center alongside other artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Augusta Savage. (While there, Helfond was also active in efforts to unionize artists.) The social-realist style of her work reveals the unvarnished conditions of labor, as it vividly depicts women hard at work in a cramped, dark, and stuffy workspace.
Recognizing economic freedom as integral to full citizenship, many women sought to expand opportunities to work outside of the home in the 1970s. To make this possible, women called for public daycare and built off the momentum of the anti-war movement. In demonstrations like the one featured in the photograph above, women called for a re-prioritization of public spending to support childcare rather than the military. This photograph also represents a continuation of a long-held strand of women’s activism: The argument that women need access to political power in order to protect children and promote their well-being. (Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History)
Video Installation of Women Speakers
Towards the end of the exhibition is the media installation featuring short video clips of women speaking out on a range of topics, from an unnamed woman protesting nuclear weapons to Madonna Thunder Hawk’s pleasure at seeing Sioux activists coming together to a teenager asking Congress for action on climate change. One of the themes of the show is the wide variety of issues women sought to address and the tactics they used to effect change. The design of the installation is intended to emphasize this diversity of viewpoints; for the visitor, it’s almost as if the various activists are in ongoing conversation across the decades. (Sarah Gordon, Curatorial Scholar in Women’s History)
Do these objects spark your interest? Then, come check them out in person, along with much more, at Women March, on view Feb. 28–Aug. 30.