Southern Methodist University hosts a stunning centennial exhibit titled “Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes” now on view at the website of the DeGolyer Library in Dallas. The display offers an intellectual history of books and other printed materials that shaped the suffrage movement. It features over 100 objects from the collections of Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, Helen LaKelly Hunt, and the DeGolyer Library, in a wide ranging show curated by Samantha Dodd.
Dodd, 33, is the curator of the library’s Women of the Southwest archives. She is one of the many who played a major role in staging the show which celebrates the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment to the US constitution which granted women the right to vote.
According to Dodd the event was originally scheduled to be an exhibit at the library with a virtual portion. A substantial printed catalog was also planned. The covid epidemic, she said, “derailed” the physical portion, while at the same time allowing for a substantially expanded online version of the show, which grew far larger than had initially been anticipated.
Dodd said that work to assemble the items to be included began in early 2019 when both Stevenson-Moessner and LaKelly Hunt both agreed to loan items from their collections; the library augmented those with selections from its own holdings. Dodd was optimistic that the printed catalog (whose publication has been delayed) will eventually emerge, and stressed that the virtual exhibit will remain on view “permanently.”
She also mentioned that while women in the eastern parts of the country “get most of the attention,” the western women were “way ahead of the game.” In many states like Wyoming, Utah and Colorado they got the vote well before the 1920 passage of the amendment and “were already running for office and getting elected by the time the amendment passed. In the west, women already had rights,” she said.
While Dodd was happy to celebrate the centennial, she added,“We’re all trying to make it well known the 19th amendment did not enfranchise everyone," (Black women did not get the vote until 1965) and she pointed out that poll taxes of past years and other present barriers enacted by various states continue to create obstacles to universal suffrage.
Commenting on the show, contributor Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner said her own interest in the subject began back in early 1980s when a class at Princeton on American church history led her to the college’s library. There she found a cardboard box filled with “a bunch of pamphlets” including one called “The Slave’s Appeal” and other abolition and suffrage topics.
Stevenson-Moessner described the experience “very graphic and moving” saying it led her to an ongoing interest in the subject. Years later, in 2005, she joined the SMU faculty where she is currently Professor of Pastoral Care and Pastoral Theology at the Perkins School of Theology.
Asked how she built her collection, she replied that it was her young daughter who taught her about eBay. Through the auction website she assembled many interesting pieces. The one that particularly caught her interest was a card with a photo of Sojourner Truth, which back in the mid-19th century cost 5 cents and was sold to raise money to finance the cause.
She bought it online for the 21st century price, which was substantially more than the original nickel. “I never thought about building a collection,” she commented, “but when I opened the plastic I realized Sojourner Truth had touched it. Well it was a transformative moment for me.”
In addition, her own particular interests include newspaper accounts of the period and also postcards which “illustrated the way women were derided and belittled.” She’s not quite sure what will become of her holdings adding, “It’s important that upcoming generations never forget what we went through to get our right to vote.”
The other contributor to the show, Helen LaKelly Hunt, was unavailable for comment.
“Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes”
Rare Book Hub portions of the exhibit commentary (somewhat edited) from the extensive notes posted online.
From Mary Wollstonecraft’s manifesto in 1792 to Doris Stevens’s campaign of militant suffragists in 1920, these women took to the podiums, to the newspapers, and to the streets to make their voices heard and to advocate for the equality of the sexes and the enfranchisement of women. The formats were diverse: from cookbooks to broadsides, postcards to pamphlets, but the message consistently argued in favor of women’s rights. The SMU exhibit includes rare books, pamphlets, broadsides, photographs, sheet music, manuscripts, and ephemera documenting the history of the women’s rights movement with emphasis on the roles women played first in the abolitionist movement and then in the suffrage movement. The 19th amendment eliminated sex as a barrier to voting in the United States but it left out women of lower classes, and of different races and ethnicities. Suffrage took an important step in 1920, but the journey for women’s rights did not stop there.
Many of the items in the exhibition were loaned by Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, an SMU faculty member. Her collection assembled over the past 14 years examines the abolition movement as well as women’s suffrage (and the resistance to women's suffrage movement) through the lenses of theology and religion.
Equally impressive are the items on view from the Helen LaKelly Hunt Collection of American Women Reformers and Writers. These are a wide ranging assortment of rare books, pamphlets, letters, photographs, and ephemera. The Hunt collection puts an emphasis on the religious, intellectual, and philosophical motivations of women activists including abolitionists and religious reformers. LaKelly Hunt is SMU graduate who also hold a PhD. from Union Theological Seminary. She has written extensively on religion and women’s rights.
According to the exhibit notes both women found that research for their own scholarship and books led to their interest in collecting primary sources of the women’s movement.
Mobilization of a Movement
The remarkable advances in technology in the late 19th and early 20th century meant that middle and upper-class white women had the luxury of leisure time. Some women sought higher education, opened businesses, and others participated in reform movements such as abolition and women’s suffrage, rejecting the idea that the only place for woman was the home.
Though many joined the movement, change did not happen quickly. To mobilize required traveling thousands of miles, public demonstrations, and speeches and publications. Activism happened not only in churches, meeting halls, schools, conferences and conventions, but also in book clubs and sewing circles. Through the writing of petitions, marches, and protests, women found themselves outside the homes, actively participating in the public sphere. These actions were critical to winning support.
Educators, lawyers, brokers, writers, economists, philosophers, wives and mothers banded together and formed multiple organizations at the local, regional and national level. Together these women and these organizations arranged presentations at state constitutional conventions, hosted Women’s Rights conventions, and spread the words and ideals of equality.
‘That Noble Cause,’ Abolition and Women's Suffrage
The suffrage movement was one of many causes women participated in during the period including racial justice, labor reform, temperance, child labor laws, and juvenile justice. The women's rights movement was the offspring of abolition. While the 15th Amendment prohibited states from denying a male citizen the right to vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude," it still denied the vote to women.
Many women’s rights supporters and suffragists gained experience with reform efforts through the anti-slavery movement and specifically through the American Anti-Slavery Society. The abolition movement provided women with opportunities to speak, organize, write, hold office, raise funds, and edit newspapers. However, not all abolitionists supported women’s rights. In her Essay on Slavery and Abolition, Catharine Beecher urged women to end slavery while remaining “in their appropriate sphere.”
Black women played a critical role in the suffrage movement. Though they were excluded from suffrage associations that maintained mostly white upper-middle class membership, they worked towards the same end goal from their own separate suffrage organizations. Black reformers founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. The NACW became the largest federation of local black women’s clubs. Black women attended political conventions, wrote papers, spoke during forums and public events, and planned strategies to gain the right to vote.
After the passage of the 19th amendment, many states continued to use other means such as complex registration practices, poll taxes, and literacy/educational testing to discriminate against women and suppress the vote. It was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Black women, minority women and women from lower economic classes secured the right to vote.
The section of the exhibit titled “That Noble Cause” displays books written by Black female authors including Maria W. Stewart, Phillis Wheatley, Harriet Jacobs and Mary McLeod Bethune.
Also included are books and articles written by a number of abolitionists who later championed the suffrage movement, including the Grimké sisters. They highlight women arguing against slavery, calling for the abolition of slavery, and illustrating the connections between abolition and suffrage.
The Great Orators
Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frances Willard, and Sojourner Truth are some of the well-known names of the suffrage movement. They are considered the great orators whose voices were heard and whose words printed in papers across the country. They argued for universal suffrage, and made appeals to women nationwide to unite and “make the demand now” for the vote. Susan B. Anthony argued that suffrage was a natural right, while Elizabeth Cady Stanton challenged organized religion’s beliefs about women with her work The Woman’s Bible.
Together these individuals are sometimes referred to as the founding mothers of suffrage, or the mothers of feminism. They founded the national organizations for women’s rights, created the first platforms, and established the goals for achieving the vote. Though most of them did not live to see the passage of the amendment, their generation gave direction to those who followed and ushered in the next wave of suffrage leaders.
Against the Grain - The Anti-suffragists
The idea of suffrage for women was ridiculed by many. It divided households, families, organizations, and leadership. For individuals such as Horace Bushnell, suffrage was a “reform against nature.” According to statesman Elihu Root, suffrage represented “an injury to the state” and a “loss to all women.” Suffragists represented a threat to traditional values and gender roles.
Anti-suffragists created cartoons that mocked suffragists as masculine, ugly and often angry. Articles appearing in countless national and regional papers attacked women who took part in public life. Anti-suffragists distributed pins, buttons, pamphlets and postcards opposing suffrage for women. Somewhat ironically, these anti-suffragists were politically active while advocating to limit women’s roles in the political sphere.
Both men and women organized against suffrage. Those opposed to suffrage argued that most women did not want to vote, that women’s place was in the home. Others claimed that women lacked the expertise or mental capacity to offer a useful opinion about political issues.
The Songs of Suffrage
The SMU exhibit has a significant segment on the music of the movement including hymns, anthems, ballads and marches. Songs brought women together and delivered their messages in verse. Notable tunes carried their voices from sewing circles to large rallies in the streets. The songs of the suffrage movement not only inspired many to join or support their cause, their lyrics often carried words of hope and of promise of a better future.
Both suffragists and anti-suffragists utilized the power of music throughout their campaigns. Through the use of imagery, irony, and sarcasm, anti-suffragists exposed deeply seated beliefs about the role and responsibilities of women, and widely held anxieties and fears of men during the movement. On view in this section of the exhibit are materials on loan from Danny O. Crew historical sheet music collection at the DeGolyer Library.
Women of Faith
Faith played an important role in the women’s rights movement. A major influencer, Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), was raised in a Quaker family with a long tradition of social activism. Anthony realized that to enact real change for women they needed the right to vote. Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), whose beliefs were shaped by her Quaker upbringing and who was a staunch abolitionist and supporter of women’s rights, joined Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) to form the National Woman Suffrage Association. Mott met Stanton when both were delegates at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. The first order of business was to ban the admission of women delegates. At the end of the convention Mott and Stanton resolved to call a meeting in the United States in support of the rights of women.
Julia Evelina Smith (1792–1886) was exceptionally successful both as a linguist and as an activist for women’s suffrage. She utilized her knowledge of Greek and Hebrew to produce a literal Bible translation, “endeavoring to put the same English word for the same Greek or Hebrew word, everywhere.” Published at her own expense in 1876, Smith’s edition was the first complete translation of the Bible by a woman. In addition, Amanda Berry Smith (1837-1915) was a noted Methodist Holiness revivalist and missionary. Known for her inspired preaching and singing at Methodist camp meetings, Smith was a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and a friend of Frances Willard (1839-1898), noted temperance reformer and women’s suffragist.
Sojourner Truth (c. 1797– 1883) was born into slavery and sold as a slave when she was nine years old. She escaped from slavery with her infant daughter in 1826. On June 1, 1843, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and committed to devoting her life to Methodism, the abolition of slavery, and equal rights for all. She spoke regularly to large crowds as she sought equality for all women and chastised abolitionists for not including black women as well as men.
On September 8, 1853, Sojourner Truth spoke at the Women’s Rights Convention in New York. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton described her, “She was black, and she was a woman, and all the insults that could be cast upon color and sex were together hurled at her; but there she stood, calm and dignified, a grand, wise woman, who could neither read nor write, and yet with deep insight could penetrate the very soul of the universe about her.”
Voices of the Southwest
While in the east the militant suffragists went on hunger strikes and protested vehemently outside the White House, women in the west placed emphasis on personal connections and took a non-confrontational approach to garnering support for women’s rights. Several western states and territories recognized women’s suffrage rights before the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920: Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Colorado (1893), Idaho, Washington (1883), California (1911), Oregon (1912), Montana (1914), Arizona (1912), and Kansas (1912) among others. In the South, Texas was the first southern state to ratify the amendment on June 28, 1919.
It was not all peace, love, and harmony among the suffragists: There was at times a regional divide. They disagreed on leadership, tactics, and money. The suffragists in the west generally opposed militancy and involvement of those from the east. Instead they opted to canvas door to door, lobby politicians, attend mass meetings, write newspaper articles, hand out pamphlets, and hold public forums.
“Voices of the Southwest” highlights documents from the suffrage movement in the western United States, providing insight into how regionalism affected women’s suffrage. From voting instructions to campaign materials, this section of the exhibit documents the efforts of suffragists and politicians to secure the right to vote for women.
Many of these pieces come from the DeGolyer Library’s Archives of Women of the Southwest.
The library also offers related video clips from faculty in the Dedman College Interdisciplinary Institute, New Feminist Discourses and Social Change.
PDF to Sojourner Truth speech “Ain’t I a Woman” thehermitage.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Sojourner-Truth_Aint-I-a-Woman_1851.pdf
Reach exhibition curator Samantha Dodd at email@example.com