A Special SuffrageandtheMedia Report: How the Media Covered the New York State Suffrage Centennial
Alex Kane. "How the Media Covered New York's Suffrage Centennial." Suffrageandthemedia.org. February 12, 2018.
Era: Post-Suffrage Era | Media: Book Reviews, Book-Non-Fiction, Magazines, Newspapers, Panel Discussion, Theatre, Video
February 12, 2018
By ALEX KANE
On November 6, 1917, New Yorkers voted to give women the right to participate in elections. It was a milestone for the national movement to get women the vote, and helped paved the way for ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which enfranchised every eligible American of voting age in 1920.
Celebrations across the state in 2017 honored the 100th anniversary of this New York milestone. Up, down, and across the state, local communities both big and small held events that highlighted the sacrifices and activism that led to victory.
The New York press dutifully followed along. Media outlets, particularly local newspapers, covered many of these events. The local coverage focused on reenactment marches; historic markers commemorating particular suffragists; book talks and readings; museum and historical society exhibits; plays; and the elected officials who showed up. The volume of local press coverage was substantial.
The deluge was not accidental. It grew out of years of organizing among pockets of advocates who pushed for government funding for suffrage centennial commemorations and concerted publicity drives to put these often voluntary efforts in the public eye. The state centennial funding appropriation of $500,000 was far below the $2 million suffrage event organizers had requested.
Scarlett Rebman, a grants officer for Humanities NY, spoke about the considerable energy community organizations put into digging up local suffrage history. She said local media outlets were important contributors. She said they “uncovered a lot of interesting stories and interesting sources.” Humanities NY had responsibility for distributing $266,000 in grants around the state for New York suffrage centennial events.
The attendance count for events her organization funded stood at more than 90,000 by January 2018.The total number is likely higher, since the organization does not keep track of the numerous other events that did not receive Humanities NY funding.
Some examples of significant local news coverage:
- The Adirondack Almanack publicized a reenactment of a 1900 suffrage convention held in Glens Falls, NY.
- The Auburn Citizen reported on a Girl Scouts convention held in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the national women’s rights movement, and a speech Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, chair of the NY Women’s Suffrage Commission, delivered to the scouts.
- WNYC, the popular radio outlet, took a look at suffrage commemorations in the five boroughs on the 100th anniversary of winning suffrage, and conducted an interview with an expert on suffrage.
- AMNY covered plans to erect statues of suffrage leaders in Central Park.
- And the East Hampton Star focused on the planning and reenactment of a 1913 rally and march for suffrage attended by Harriot Stanton Blatch, whose descendants came to the East End to participate.
The opening of the women’s suffrage exhibit at the New York State Museum in Albany is a centerpiece of the celebration. Called “Votes for Women,” it features over 250 items that help tell the story of how New York activists won their fight. In addition to extensive coverage in the local press, the Associated Press covered it, generating reprints in such outlets as US News and World Report, the Seattle Times, and the Washington Times, among others.
“It was covered around the state quite a bit mostly because we borrowed from so many different local institutions,” said Jennifer Lemak, the chief curator of history for the New York State Museum, adding that the museum borrowed artifacts from over 50 institutions in New York State, creating interest in the project from communities whose artifacts are on display.
Lemak added that tours of the exhibit were well-attended. And while the state museum does not keep track of attendance by exhibition, Ashley Hopkins-Benton, a senior historian and curator at the museum, said that on “social media right now, if you look at the photographs people post from the museum, a quarter to a third are from the suffrage exhibit.”
Lemak said that the museum exhibit has had success in attracting a younger audience, even though the exhibit was light on the use of multimedia or interactive features. The exhibit’s two digital components were a video about the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act—which prohibits creditors from discriminating against applicants on the basic of race or sex (see the video below)–and a big map of New York with videos and pictures of women’s protests projected on it.
“We declined to have more AV/digital components in the gallery because the artifacts are so great we did not want to distract attention away from them,” she said.
The museum was able to broaden the impact of the exhibition with a suffrage program, based on the museum exhibit, made available to more than 50 different institutions in New York, which then were able to print it out and put it on display.
In addition, many historical societies created their own exhibits to highlight different communities’ contributions to the suffrage movement, exhibits that in turn generated local press coverage. Attending the Suffolk County Historical Society’s suffrage exhibit was mandatory for students at a local high school, and several Girl Scout troops came, said Wendy Polhemus-Annibell, the head research librarian at the society.
The Ticonderoga Historical Society’s exhibit was similarly well-attended. “I know from informal feedback that our ‘Votes for Women’ exhibit was very popular,” said Diane O’Connor, the program assistant at the historical society. “And, since we set an attendance record during the 2017 season (nearly 3,000) visitors to the museum, it would follow that the exhibit was enjoyed by many.” Local media attention was also strong, she said. “We had several local angles to the history of suffrage (Sarah Thompson Pell and Inez Milholland), and I believe this made our local media very receptive.”
And the Rochester Area Suffrage Centennial Alliance’s exhibit, “Because of Women Like Her . . . Winning the Vote in New York State,” was featured at the Rochester Public Library. Michelle Finn, Rochester’s deputy historian, said that during the exhibition’s 2017 run, more than 27,000 people were counted at the library’s door.
Celebrity involvement in suffrage-related events also attracted media attention. For instance, Meryl Streep’s narration of a short film on suffrage, “We Rise,” which exclusively played at the New York Historical Society museum exhibit “Hotbed,” garnered coverage outside the local press. For instance, Hollywood Reporter and Refinery29 ran articles on Streep’s involvement.
Another popular event that the local press covered was the placement of historic markers to highlight particular suffragists. The William G. Pomeroy Foundation gave out over $20,000 dollars to communities in New York. That money funded the placement of 20 markers to honor suffragists such as Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, a philanthropist and suffragist from Sag Harbor, Elizabeth Browne Chatfield, a suffragist who was the secretary for Susan B. Anthony and who lived in Owego, NY, and Mae Groot Manson in East Hampton, NY.
“The dedication ceremonies were highly attended, and had some amazing speakers,” said Paula Miller, the executive director of the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. Those dedication ceremonies lead to substantial local press coverage of the marker program, she added.
Coline Jenkins, the great-great granddaughter of suffrage icon Elizabeth Cady Stanton, said local media coverage of suffrage markers, and other centennial events, was “a way of reminding women how hard it was to get the right to vote, how it shouldn’t be taken for granted, how it should be used. It is the right that you get all of your other rights from. It’s really important to get all these messages out.”
But much to the chagrin of volunteers who organized suffrage events, major newspapers such as the New York Times gave only minimal attention to centennial coverage.
The Times did not completely ignore it, however. The paper ran an article on an opera on the issue, and a piece on the New-York Historical Society’s exhibit on the role Greenwich Village played in suffrage activism. It also reviewed two relevant books in its metropolitan section. In all, only three articles on the New York centennial appeared in the newspaper, although its online-only New York Today did mention the centennial a few times, including suffrage-related events at local venues. Articles on the subject of the suffrage movement more generally did not give the state centennial celebration special focus.
The Wall Street Journal appeared to be even less interested. The newspaper did reprint a number of Associated Press stories on the topic but produced no original reporting on the subject.
In general, little attention was paid to the role of particular minority groups who played a big, if little unacknowledged, role in the suffrage movement.
There was some coverage of the role that black women played in the movement, many of whom worked hard for the vote despite divisions in the movement over black civil rights and outright racism.
That said, numerous media outlets covered Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement of plans for a statue of Sojourner Truth, a black advocate for suffrage and the abolition of slavery. There was also some local press coverage on the role black women played and the divisions in the movement over black civil rights. Some local outlets covered book talks given by Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello, whose book, Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State, includes chapters on the voting rights advocacy of black people, the working-class, rural New Yorkers, and immigrants. Still, the coverage of minority groups’ role paled in comparison to more general coverage of suffrage.
Rebman of Humanities NY said it was her sense that “a lot of groups, as they developed their events, were sensitive to telling an inclusive story, and also in dealing with the complicated sense of that story.” Still, she said, “There was sensitivity to that but there’s more work to be done.”
Publishing houses timed a few books to the New York centennial and they, in turn, received wider attention than they likely would have, given their placement with academic houses. Sam Robertson’s “New York Bookshelf” column in the New York Times featured both The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote, by Brooke Kroeger (who runs this website), and the aforementioned Goodier-Pastorello book, Women Will Vote. Kroeger wrote articles for Town & Country, the New York Daily News, and Tablet magazine on the men who lobbied for suffrage, and one in press for Zócalo Public Square/ASU/Smithsonian’s “What It Means to Be an American” series. The Gotham Center for New York History’s blog devoted the month of November 2017 to a series of articles on women’s suffrage, including essays growing out of the research by all the current suffrage authors and several others.
Other outlets that ran book reviews and articles on those books, as well as Johanna Neuman’s Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote, included The Ithaca Journal, which also reviewed Women Will Vote, and the Poughkeepsie Journal.
Neuman also attracted national press attention. The Atlantic magazine published an in-depth interview with Neuman on her book, and Neuman authored a Wall Street Journal article reviewing the “five best” books on the fight for suffrage.
Authors for all three books gave speeches and appeared on panels at dozens of local events across the state and beyond.
Cornell University Press, which published Women Will Vote, was pleased the attention the book received. “As a university publishing house, many of our titles are generally reviewed solely in academic outlets (which post reviews 1-3 years after publication date),” Jonathan Hall said in an email. He handled publicity for the book.
The SUNY University Press publicists for Votes for Women, a catalog based on the New York State Museum’s exhibit of the same name, and for Kroeger’s book, were similarly upbeat. “I definitely think that the centennial played a big role in the amount of interest we saw,” said Katherine Dias, who had publicity responsibility for Kroeger’s book.
But Christian Purdy, the publicist for Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote (NYU Press) said he felt that other events in the news overshadowed the coverage the book received. “While Gilded Suffragists received some great reviews in mainstream periodicals, I was hopeful there would be more media interest given the 100th anniversary of the suffrage movement’s securing the right to vote for women in NYS,” he e-mailed. “Unfortunately media seem more obsessed with Presidential tweets and other DC nonsense than this historic milestone.”