Art Talk with Artist Caitlin Cass

By Rebecca Sutton
A woman with glasses holds up a book that says Women's Work
Caitlin Cass with her Women's Work project, which received support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Photo by Caitlin Cass

Since 2009, artist Caitlin Cass has published the bi-monthly comic periodical The Great Moments in Western Civilization Postal Constituent, ­­­­­­­­­­which explores historical episodes that exemplify what Cass describes as “failing systems and irrational hope.” Her work’s intersection between art and history made Cass an ideal fit when the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, New York—where Cass is based—was looking for an artist to help celebrate the centennial of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. With support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Burchfield Penney commissioned Cass to create an illustrated history of voting rights in America.

The result is Women’s Work: Suffrage Movements 1848-1965. Linking the suffrage and Civil Rights movements, the comic is a sprawling, deeply researched visual history of our country’s complicated, fractious, and often inspiring story of voting rights, which certainly contains the failures and hopes that have long attracted Cass. The comic was published online over the course of 18 months, and an exhibition about the project opened at the Burchfield Penney on August 14, marking the center’s grand reopening after an extended closure due to COVID-19. The comics have also been collected into a book, which is available on Cass’s website. We recently spoke with Cass about the project.

NEA: How did the Women’s Work project came about, and what were your goals and visions for it?

CAITLIN CASS: I make a history comic that I mail out to people, and the curator [now deputy director] at the Burchfield Penney, Scott Propeack, had reached out to me because he saw that there were some opportunities for grant funding around women’s suffrage, and he wanted to do something for the centennial. I was thrilled. I teach art also, at an all-girls school. [Suffrage] is something that matters a lot to me, though I certainly wasn’t an expert when I went into this.

My approach was just to make sure that I did a more inclusive history. It’s hard to celebrate a centennial when the history is not cut and dry. There are some things that we shouldn’t necessarily celebrate. I think it’s important to remember that Black women were often left out of the movement. There were classist attitudes and anti-immigrant notions that were laced within the fight for women’s suffrage. So those were important to include.

NEA: What sort of research did you conduct for the project?

CASS: I read about 20 different books to get a scope of what was out there, and how this story is normally told, and then a bunch of different journal articles about specific topics. I went to the history museum here, the Buffalo History Museum, to get some local notions and to look at the Mary Talbert archive, and also to the Vassar College Library to see some of the ephemera that they have there, like banners and different printed stuff. I could hopefully use that to inspire some of the visuals.

In some ways this project is an ode to the histories that have already been written. Some of my favorites: The Myth of Seneca Falls by Lisa Tetrault, which discussed the popular story of Seneca Falls, and how Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote it, but how it doesn’t encapsulate all that went on. I wanted to get beyond the history Anthony and Stanton wrote and reveal the gaps in their stories. I knew I couldn't fill all these gaps in, but I could tell the story in a way that let a reader's imagination fill in the blanks.

Another great [history] is Fighting Chance by Faye Dudden, which gets behind the revolutionary moment after the Civil War, during Reconstruction, when Anthony and Stanton were trying to advocate for universal suffrage. The hope was to get Black women, Black men, and white women the vote at the same time. [Dudden] really shows that that wasn’t such a wacky idea. Later in history, people related it as asking for too much. But it was such a revolutionary moment, and people really thought they could change the world. They really honestly felt that. And then, of course, it was passed up and the opinion was that it was asking for too much and that the white women needed to wait their turn [after Black men], which caused a bit of a fissure in the movement. But I think that was inflicted from the outside more than it was internally.

NEA: Suffrage, as you mentioned, was complicated. It was messy. It was long. How did you choose which episodes and women to highlight?

CASS: I tried to focus on some women that people definitely knew. Usually when I do any sort of history project, I try to start with a story that’s known, and then dissect it and make it more complicated as I go. So [I started with] Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Then I tried to add some folks local to Buffalo—Mary Talbert, Mary Pidgeon, and a few other folks. Then I tried to pick people from three different distinct eras. I’ve got the era right after the Civil War, which of course bleeds into the turn of the century when the movement picked up and became a more popular, high-class thing with Alice Paul. I also included stories from the Civil Rights era, highlighting women like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer who don’t get as much recognition as the men from that period. It ends up being 13 women whose stories are highlighted the most, and then there are of course other folks that come in. It’s a lot of people, and I honestly wish I could have included even more. I would have loved to do more about immigrant rights and citizenship, but the scope of the project didn’t allow for that. I hope to continue with that.

I also featured some fantastical elements in the story, because the suffrage movement has historic ties to Spiritualism. When Spiritualism began in the mid 1800s, women were not really allowed to speak in public, but if they were channeling dead men they could. Spiritualism was extremely popular during the early suffrage movement. Stanton heard spirits rapping at the table as she wrote the Declaration of Sentiments. Anna Howard Shaw claimed she'd watched a dying Anthony speak to suffragists long dead. So the ghosts were there already—they were part of the history and it made sense to repurpose them and have them haunt Anthony. The ghosts are a physical manifestation of the racism that haunts the women's suffrage movement.

NEA: As you mentioned, the comic also delves into the Civil Rights movement. Why did you feel it was important to enlarge this comic beyond 1920?

CASS: There were Black women involved in the [suffrage] movement, but they don’t really get remembered. They were often more involved in anti-lynching campaigns and general fundraising to help impoverished women and families. They had a wider scope with their activism. I tried to include some of their stories, but it just felt like I needed to tell more about their fight to vote, because it didn’t stop after 1920. So many of them still couldn’t vote. So that’s why I included the Civil Rights movement. I felt like I needed to show that the struggle keeps going.

NEA: I was talking with a playwright recently who wrote a play for young audiences about suffrage. She said, “A hundred plays could be written about all the nuances that could be found in a single paragraph of a history book.” How do you feel your work enlarges our understanding of voting rights?

CASS: Where I see my version of history fitting in is just the insane scope of it, because it’s trying to tell Civil Rights with turn of the century with Reconstruction-era suffrage movements. I think you see more of those moments where history rhymes—those moments where things happen similarly. There are so many different stories I could have told here, but what I tried to do is tell a history from one era, try to let it rhyme with something in another era. I would bounce back and forth between these moments to see how things change and don’t change. That was what was fascinating to me. So it’s a little bit more of a poetic way to deal with history rather than trying to tell a normal, complete narrative.

NEA: Obviously, comics have traditionally been associated with humor and sometimes silliness, which has certainly evolved in the age of graphic novels. I wanted to hear your thoughts about the appeal of using comics to interpret complex and sometimes disturbing moments in history.

CASS: On some level, it’s just the medium that I’ve always used, so it’s an interesting thing to try to dissect exactly why. I think I started using comics because it did lack a certain amount of pretension. I studied the classics as an undergraduate, and I was turned off by the way that people are often intimidated by texts just because they’re written by dead white men and everybody appreciates them. When people read a comic, they aren’t expecting that, and they aren’t intimidated by it. Instead of assuming that they [themselves] are stupid, they’ll assume the comic is stupid, which I really like. I think what I’m doing is I’m trying to take the very human pieces out of history, and the nuance, and make the nuance a simple thing. Oftentimes, when things are simplified, it’s black-and-white and everything is a little bit too explained. But nuance doesn’t have to be this intimidating and complicated thing. It should just be [part of] every day, because every day is nuanced.

NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process?

CASS: With this project, I had to [turn a comic] in every other week. So the first week I would be reading extensively, researching. I had a vague outline of the whole project at the beginning, but it really worked very intuitively. I would look at the last comic I made, read the whole thing, and from there think, what does this feel like from other things that I’ve read? What does this remind me of from this different time period? What question does this ask that could be answered or further investigated by showing this story? Then I would research far into that story that I intuitively saw, and then I would usually would lay out the page. I might start with an image in the center, and then fill in the story. I don’t write it out at all, because I feel like it’s more fun. There were certainly a few times where I just threw things out completely, but generally when I work like that, I feel like it stays alive and it doesn’t fizzle out. I have a hard time working from a script that’s completely figured out, because I feel like the images don’t appear organically and intuitively.

NEA: Aside from this project, how do you decide which pieces or historical episodes to focus on? What attracts you to them, in general?

CASS: I like stories of sort of irrational hope—people who really, really think they can accomplish this thing, despite all evidence to the contrary. I used to say it was the failure that attracted me to them, but it’s more just that willingness to keep going even when everything suggests that there’s no hope. So those are the kinds of stories I look for. I always focused on obscure histories, but I still did a lot of work that was focused on white men, and I’m really trying to do that less. My work started very critically—it was just sort of making fun of history—and now I’m realizing that I need to do more than that. I’m trying to tell more nuanced versions of those stories, but also being critical. I feel like part of the problem with some women’s histories and minority histories is that people aren’t always critical, because they don’t think they should be because these people need to be held up. But that’s not telling a full history. It’s important to me to try to tell a full history.

NEA: What do you hope people take away from the project, either whether they’re viewing it online or going to the exhibit or reading the book?

CASS: I hope they feel awe and wonder at the struggle for voting rights and how people continued to stand up for their rights even when it seemed hopeless. It went on for so long and on some level, it continues to go on, and people are still there for it. I think that’s amazing.

Learn more about the Arts Endowment's efforts to celebrate the centennial of women's suffrage.