Secondary Source

Interview: Susan Ware on the “Long 19th Amendment” and Harvard Schlesinger Library’s Plans for the Suffrage Centennial

Alex Kane. "Interview: Susan Ware on the 'Long 19th Amendment' and Harvard Schlesinger Library's Plans for the Suffrage Centennial." October 22, 2018.

Era: Post-Suffrage Era | Media: Book-Non-Fiction, Web-based

More on this site regarding Susan Ware: See the post on her new book, from Harvard University Press Why They Marched and Ware’s Washington Post essay on the need to return black women to the center of suffrage movement history. What follows is an interview with her by Alex Kane as she took the helm of the Schlesinger Library’s suffrage centennial commemoration initiative. 

Harvard’s Schlesinger Library is gearing up to mark the suffrage centennial in 2020.

Thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the library plans “cutting-edge interdisciplinary scholarship through long-term fellowships, summer residencies, public programming and exhibits, undergraduate seminars, and an international scholarly conference” on women’s suffrage.

To learn more about what the Schlesinger Library plans for the suffrage centennial, Alex Kane, a researcher for this website, spoke with Susan Ware, a Schlesinger Library Council member and a scholar and author on women’s history and suffrage.

Alex Kane: Could you tell me what the Schlesinger Library’s plans are for the next few years as it relates to suffrage?

Susan Ware: The first plug I have to make is for the Schlesinger Library itself, which is one of the main repositories of archival material on the suffrage movement. And in fact, we’re celebrating our seventy-fifth anniversary this year, and the core collection when the library was founded in 1943 came directly out of the suffrage movement, with former suffragists wanting to preserve that history and make sure that it was accessible to future generations.

We take that legacy seriously, and so the upcoming centennial has been on our radar for quite a while. I think what the library is trying to do is to focus especially on scholarly initiatives around the suffrage centennial. We realize there are state commemorations and there’ll be plays and recreations of suffrage pageants, which are exciting because you get people interested. But I think that we’ve decided that our role really could be more of a scholarly one, and that we really wanted to encourage new questions and new knowledge about the suffrage movement and its significance to a broad range of 19th, 20th,, and 21st century topics.

As we worked to think about our various programs, we came up with the concept of the “long 19th Amendment,” and that is proving very useful to us as we plot our various activities. What it allows us to do is look at traditional suffrage history, which is pretty much bounded by Seneca Falls in 1848 and the passage of the amendment in 1920, but also expand the chronology to what came before Seneca Falls and especially what came after 1920, because for African-American women in particular, 1920 isn’t much of a milestone.

I think we also were trying to expand our understanding of suffrage by making it wider, by putting the suffrage movement in conversation with other movements for social change—especially activism around the Reconstruction period and civil rights and the rights of African-American men. Women’s suffrage has been put off in its own separate silo, and we’re trying to challenge that.

And we have been very fortunate to receive a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation for our “long 19th Amendment” project, and we are using that in various ways. We are able now to offer fellowships at the Radcliffe Institute and also at the Schlesinger Library, which we hope will encourage new scholarship and the creation of new knowledge about suffrage. We are planning a major scholarly conference for the fall of 2020. Mellon is trying to encourage interaction with undergraduates, so there’s a teaching component. There will be at least two, if not three, new courses that are seeded by that money and they will be archive-intensive courses taught at the Schlesinger Library drawing on archival resources and the staff at the library.

Then, there’s what we’re calling a digital portal. A lot of our suffrage material is being digitized, and we want to make that available. But we also want to see if we can use our position as a go to place for women’s history in a collaborative way so that we can be linking with other institutions and scholarly resources that are also collecting material for posting new content on suffrage.

Issues of gender and citizenship and voting are topics that are more timely than ever. We’re really hoping that the national conversation around these issues can be informed by history. We would like to play a role in providing some of that and we hope to come up with some new questions and some new approaches to how we think and teach women’s suffrage.

AK: Why has the Schlesinger Library been such a repository for women’s history?

SW: The former Radcliffe College, and now the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, has been very supportive of scholarship on women. And the Schlesinger Library, when it was founded in 1943, was under the bureaucratic administration of Radcliffe College. It was specifically founded as a repository to document the history of women in America, and in the years since then, the library’s collection has just grown exponentially, far beyond the original, big cache of suffrage material.

They had a black women’s oral history project, Pauli Murray’s papers are there, and June Jordan’s, and now a lot on reproductive rights and justice. It’s really part of a larger conversation about the history of women in America and suffrage is part of that. That’s why suffrage is so much a part of our history—but that’s not all we do, far from it.

AK: I wanted to highlight the concept of the “long 19th Amendment.” Could you explain that and how it relates to other “long centuries” in the academy and how the Schlesinger Library is going to engage with the concept.

SW: We were influenced by other uses of the concept of “long.” The two most significant ones are the “long 19th  century,” which 19th  century historians and early American historians use to cover the founding of the United States through World War One, because bounding it just by 1800 and 1900 loses what came before and where it’s going to go. Then there’s the “long civil rights movement,” because some of the richest material now that’s coming out is the backstory or the prequel to what happens in the 1950s and 1960s, because it doesn’t just come out of nowhere at that moment. And then you also want to see what happens afterwards. That has been very much our goal with suffrage.

One of the people involved with this project is Lisa Tetrault, who teaches at Carnegie Mellon. She pointed out with her book The Myth of Seneca Falls that Seneca Falls is a constructed starting point. It was made for specific purposes by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to serve their view of suffrage history and their role in that. But it wasn’t the first women’s rights convention ever, and it certainly wasn’t the first time these issues had been raised. And so, by pushing the timeline back we could look at what Maria Stewart was doing, an African-American woman, when she’s speaking in public about women’s rights in the 1830s or early attempts to change property laws. So that is already turning out to be a rich focus point in terms of thinking where this movement came from and seeing it as part of a much bigger story.

And then on the other hand not stopping the story in 1920. Something that’s really damned the poor woman suffrage movement is people thinking, “oh women got the vote and then they just went back to bed, and nothing happened, and they didn’t really exercise the vote. They didn’t change the world. End of story.” Well, it’s not the end of the story, and there is just a fascinating continuity of the activism starting with African-American women. They are the teeth of the story. And I suspect that’s going to be one of the take away points from our various conferences and programming. We do need to think about questions of voting rights, and who can vote and who can’t vote and why and how you mobilize. I think there’s a direct line between the suffrage spectacles and the Women’s March of 2017. So that way we’re able to put the suffrage mobilization in a larger conversation. That’s really what we’re trying to do and it is absolutely vital not to just how we teach and write history, but to where we are today. And I don’t think anybody could argue the question of citizenship and the vote and gender are not very much on people’s minds at the moment.

AK: And are you as a scholar going to be contributing to some of this new work on suffrage?

SW: Whether I contribute or not remains to be seen, but I have written a new book that will be out next May. And I might as well make a pitch for it. It’s called Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote, and it will be out with Harvard University Press.

The book is a history of the women’s suffrage movement, but it’s not told in a top down way. It is 19 biographical portraits of lesser known and unknown women who participated in the movement. Each one of them is paired with a suffrage object that has its own story, and when read together they actually tell the history of women’s suffrage. It’s told in a way, I hope, that makes people understand why it was so important to women—why they were in some cases willing to give their lives for. I’m a biographer, so I was drawn to biography as I wanted to tell the story and almost all the stories and almost all of the objects are found at the Schlesinger Library.

So, this book is in some ways my love letter to the Schlesinger Library, which has been my institutional home since I was a graduate student at Harvard in the 1970s. So, I feel like I’ve come full circle.

AK: And you mentioned that you know the contributions of women of color will be a big part of the Schlesinger Library’s activities. Could you explain how those stories been marginalized in the past, and why you think it’s important to amplify them now?

SW: I think they were marginalized in the past in part because African-American women suffragists were not all that welcomed by the mainstream white organizations. And certainly, when the original materials were collected at the Schlesinger Library and other places, there was very little material on African-American suffrage.

Now, people have gone back and found [material]—I give a huge shout out to Tom Dublin and Katie Sklar of the Women and Social Movement’s web site and the Black women’s suffragist project.

Finding material about these women, documenting their contributions, is changing the story in incredibly exciting ways because it makes us think about the suffrage story in an intersectional way. We can’t just talk about gender—we have to talk about race as well. We should be talking about class and other things, too. It’s really, really important. And there’s a vibrancy to the research going on that is incredibly exciting.

What hasn’t happened yet—and I will be curious to see whether it does—is whether as part of the the Centennial we also learn more about other groups that were marginalized. I’m thinking especially of Mexican-American women and Latinas in the Western states. I’m thinking also about Native American women and the vote. That’s an incredibly complicated topic but it should be part of the story. And then Chinese immigrants. There were very few Chinese-American women because of immigration restrictions, but they couldn’t vote either. And so there are stories out there that are waiting to be uncovered.

They will enrich our understanding of this movement and make it impossible to dismiss it as just something that benefited white, middle-class women. I’m not denying that racism is an important part of the story, but there is much more going on there and it’s going to make for a much richer understanding of coalitions, and this question of why the vote was so important to people. What does that mean? What does it stand for? Why did people fight so hard for it?

I have a feeling that some of the chronologies of, let’s say, especially for Latinas in the West, may be a little later than 1920 in terms of their political mobilization. I’m thinking about things like the LULAC [League of United Latin American Citizens], and some of the other civil rights organizations founded in the 20s 30s. So there may or may not be a suffrage component. I think that that’s kind of the next frontier and I’m really excited to see what gets turned up.

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