Art Works Blog

Five Questions on the National Portrait Gallery exhibit "Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence"

On view through January 5, 2020, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery (NPG) exhibit Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence examines the history of women's suffrage in the U.S. from 1832-1965. Comprising more than 120 portraits and objects, the exhibit is the centerpiece of the Smithsonian American Women's History initiative Because of Her Story. Votes for Women is curated by Portrait Gallery Historian Kate Clarke Lemay, who is also the coordinating curator of the Women's History initiative. In addition to recognizable names, such as Elizabeth Cady Staton and Ida B. Wells, the exhibit broadens the story of women's suffrage with the inclusion of many women who are less well known. Votes for Women also doesn't shy away from the thorny racial politics that were part of the women's suffrage movement, and it takes care to show how the movement intersected with the abolitionist and temperance movements, as well as noting that the fight for women's suffrage didn't end with the passage of the 19th Amendment. A trove of historical objects and ephemera, including promotional pamphlets, voting maps, and newspaper articles, help to contextualize and bring the barriers the movement faced vividly to life. While Lemay hopes that the exhibit broadens our understanding and awareness of the role of women in U.S. history, she also considers Votes for Women a call to action to realize we've "inherited all of this incredibly hard work," and to consider our own relationship with persistence. In the following interview, which was conducted at the National Portrait Gallery, Lemay talks about how she curated the exhibit, why she included some portraits and not others, and her favorite piece in Votes for Women.

a group of women in classical dress protesting

Liberty and Her Attendants (Suffragettes Tableau) in Front of Treasury Bldg March 3, 1913, Washington DC. Photomechanical reproductions. Ronnie Lapinsky Sax.

NEA: Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence covers so much and there are many different types of objects! Can you talk about how you put the exhibit together?

KATE CLARKE LEMAY: At the National Portrait Gallery, we endeavor to tell the history of the United States through visual biography, so two things helped me organize this exhibition. One is that I was telling biography through portraiture, but I had the freedom to also borrow and put on view objects that help contextualize these women. I think that's really important that they're not presented in a floating vacuum, and the objects help us understand the context around the incredible difficult realities that they were facing. The second thing that helped me with organizing this exhibition was the architecture of the building itself. You have a long hallway, and the three galleries on each side…. For me, having these three small galleries on each side of the long hallway helped me figure out, "Okay, so I have six time periods. And then the long hallway can be [hung with] portraits and portraits of women!" That [architecture] really helped me give structure to what otherwise would have been a formless history.

NEA: How did you choose which specific portraits of suffragists to include, especially as some of the women highlighted in this exhibit have been the subject of several portraits?

LEMAY: I was really interested in finding portraits of these women from the exact era that they were doing something interesting. So the portrait of Ida B. Wells is from the National Portrait Gallery's collection. It was taken around 1893, one year after her best friends were lynched in Memphis, Tennessee. She wrote a protest, "This is a lie that people assume that the negro would rape a white woman."—I'm paraphrasing. She's writing what was taken to be very incendiary responses, but she was really calling reality for what it was, which was an organized murdering of black men, and sometimes women, because black Americans at that time were assimilating economically. This portrait captures her a year after she was run out of Memphis for her protests. If you look at it, she is so young. She's maybe 30, 31, and the power of that portrait for me is all about the courage that this woman had, and how relatable she is. You feel like you can sit down and have a conversation with her. I'd love to ask her about her dress and the beadwork on the bodice, because it's fabulous! She's really, really dignified.... [This portrait was taken] at that moment of her life that was really pivotal. It was shaping the rest of her life to be this activist, suffragist, journalist, advocate. 

There are a lot of decisions that I made like that. I wanted to make sure that I got Elizabeth Cady Stanton with her baby, Harriot, for example, and show her as a mother, because that's a huge part of her life. I have a portrait of Susan B. Anthony from the same era as that of Elizabeth Cady Stanton from the early 1850s. This is the era that these women were really starting their campaign for women's equal rights. Suffrage doesn't become a single-issue focus until 1870. I like thinking of portraits as that window right to that… pivotal moment in their lives where they're starting to make those decisions to be radical. What did they look like when they were these young women who just start to commit themselves to these radical causes?

an antique photo of suffragist Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Albument silver print, c. 1893. Photo by Sallie E. Garrity, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

NEA: One of the things I've heard you speak about before is the hierarchy of the object. Can you explain what that term means, and how that idea informed this exhibit?

LEMAY: As a historian, the number one thing that you're dependent upon is the archive. And we're getting more aware of how archives are prejudiced…. Suffrage history in collections is mostly white, and this is a problem because it's been written up as a white woman's history. I needed to take an intersectional approach. That meant not going for the oil paintings of these privileged elite white women, of whom there are many. In our collection at the Portrait Gallery, we have Carrie Chapman Catt, we have bronze busts of Susan B. Anthony. I know of oil paintings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But these women are well-known already, and I really didn't care to put those portraits on the wall in oil. The black-and-white photograph is small, but it's intimate… and it allows you that bridge through time and that direct contact with the sitter. So to have black-and-white photographs and make that decision to keep this a small intimate photography show, supplemented, of course, by all these materials objects of many, many different mediums, that was a conscientious decision, because I wanted black women to be on equal footing with the white women.

NEA: What's your favorite item in the exhibit?

LEMAY: Oh, this is such a tough question. I guess my favorite part of the show is the ways in which women's history is richly unfolded through these objects. And my favorite object, I have to say, is Egbert Jacobson's poster that I brought from the Schlesinger Library of Harvard. He has a woman, an allegorical figure of a woman drawn with a Pegasus hat, which signifies her from Ancient Greek tradition as the Winged Messenger of Equality. And there's this double-headed ax in the background that's from Minoan culture that [says] she's the Divine Mother Goddess. I mean these are aspirational ideals that we can all look up to.

a round black japanned tin stencilled with Women's Ballot

Ballot Box. Creator: Geo. D. Barnard & Co. 1870-1892. Ronnie Lpainsky Sax

NEA: What do you hope visitors take away from Votes for Women?

LEMAY: I really believe that this [exhibit] demonstrates women and their quality of persistence. We might not all agree on different things politically today, but the fact is [through this exhibit] we see a demonstration of collective persistence, societal persistence. It's not just one person's persistence to finish a degree, or write that book… but it covers generations. To me, that's really inspiring to have that long view, the realization that I'm of a generation that's inherited all of this incredibly hard work, and to see what my obligations today are for my own persistence. I think people are confused about women and women's history. They are used to having it be marginalized. There's only one man in the show, and he happens to be a husband. I mean, it wasn't by choice, he's just in a photograph with this woman. That's not to say that men didn't have a place in this exhibition, but there just is not enough real estate on the wall, frankly. I wanted to give over that real estate to the women. I mean, it's their time to be celebrated. We can learn about Frederick Douglass, we can learn about Theodore Weld in books, but you can't really easily find a book about Amy Kirby Post or Anna Elizabeth Dickinson. These are important women. I learned Anna Elizabeth Dickinson earned more money than Mark Twain in 1872. She earned $23,000 as a public speaker for women's rights. That's about $477,000 today, so more than the average American would make today. And yet, we don't know her name! Anna Elizabeth Dickinson really never got written about unless you would go into a deep dive biography. She's not taught in the textbooks, and Mark Twain is. And yet in her time, in her hour, she was better known than he was. So this, to me, spells out work that we need to do, and it's just an awareness that hopefully an exhibition like this will bring to people, make them more aware of women's history.

Did you know the National Portrait Gallery is a Blue Star Museum? Learn more about the program here.

Interested in learning more about the suffrage movement in the U.S.? Check out this audio blog on the documentary This Little Light of Mine, in which filmmaker Robin Hamilton tells the story of voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.

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