Museum Makes Women’s Suffrage Battle Come Alive

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Marsha Semmel, CEO, Women of the West Museum

BOULDER, Colo. (WOMENSENEWS)–In 1869, the territory of Wyoming made history by granting its 1,000 or so female citizens the right to vote. The U.S. Congress was not impressed: In fact, it threatened to withhold statehood from the territory unless suffrage was rescinded. The response from Cheyenne was swift and unequivocal: Wyoming would remain outside the Union for 100 years rather than rob its women of their right to vote.

Wyoming didn’t back down, but neither did Washington. Women retained the right to vote in Wyoming, but it took another 21 years for Washington to get around to conferring statehood and accepting that women in Wyoming would stubbornly retain full and equal suffrage.

In the same year, the new Wyoming State Constitution confirmed that right. Some said that Wyoming granted suffrage in an effort to woo single Eastern female settlers, with a view to redressing its 4:1 male to female ratio. Few women, however, heeded Susan B. Anthony’s call to move en masse to the “land of freedom.” Whatever the motivation, Wyoming proudly proclaims itself The Equality State to this day. And in 1925, Nellie Tayloe Ross became Wyoming’s–and the nation’s–first female governor. She was elected to succeed her husband, who died in office.

Today, Wyoming still stands out in some respects. Wyoming’s only representative in the U.S. House of Representatives is a just re-elected Republican, Barbara Cubin–the first woman from the state to serve in the U.S. Congress. However, women are not as well represented in the state legislature as elsewhere. In Cheyenne, women account for nine of the 60 state legislators (15 percent) and five out of the 30 state senators (16 percent), below the national overall average for state legislatures of 22 percent.

Ten Western States Broke Ground for Passage of the 19th Amendment

Spirit of SuffrageWyoming’s history is only one of the fascinating historical tidbits to be found on “This Shall Be the Land for Women: The Struggle for Western Women’s Suffrage, 1860-1920.” This timely exhibit, from the online Women of the West Museum (http://www.womenofthewest.org/), spotlights the little-known role of the West in winning the vote for all women in the United States. Through biographies, timelines and photographs, the exhibit explores 10 states that broke the ground for the eventual passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Washington, Utah and Colorado are among the other territorial suffrage trailblazers profiled in the Women of the West, known as the WOW, exhibit. Biographies include those of Hawaii’s Queen Liliukalani, the courageous opponent of the American sugar barons’ brutal takeover of the islands; Kansas populist Annie Diggs, whose influence over the Democratic and Populist parties prompted critics to complain of “a great party being whipped by a small woman”; Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, who ran against her polygamous husband to win the first woman’s seat in the Utah state senate; and Elizabeth Piper Ensley, whose organizing in the African-American community helped make Colorado the first state to grant women suffrage by popular vote in 1893.

Marsha Semmel, the museum president and chief executive officer, says the Women of the West Museum and exhibit are especially geared to children, both boys and girls. For example, an activities page engages younger visitors with challenges like a “Western women’s suffrage crossword scavenger hunt.”

“There are young people today who don’t even know what women accomplished in the 1970s,” Semmel notes.

The suffrage exhibit demonstrates a primary goal of the Women of the West Museum: to link historical research with contemporary empowerment.

“Not to look at our history,” says Semmel, “is terribly short-sighted.” Reflecting on the many women relocating to Colorado with the current high-tech influx, she adds, “These women are facing the same challenges as those who came here in the 19th century. … Resource allocation, family and community issues, questions about their own life journeys–these aren’t new concerns.” By contemplating how their foremothers dealt with the singular environment and spirit of the early West, Semmel argues, contemporary settlers can shape more grounded and informed lives.

Virtual Museum Gets Real With Projects on Modern Women’s Work

Western SuffragettesSince its inception in 1991, the Women of the West Museum has seen itself as an active participant in a constantly unfolding historical dynamic. In addition to its online exhibits, the museum fields highly visible projects on the streets of Colorado. A recent sculptural mural, Querida Madre (“Beloved Mother”), was created by children from three public housing sites to express the love and joy in their own relationships with their mothers. A physical, as opposed to a virtual, home for the museum is still in the planning stages.

The “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” project engaged Denver elementary school girls and boys in retracing the steps of women who shaped their own neighborhood. “The children were excited,” Semmel recalls. “Their history was coming alive right under their noses.” She adds that in the course of the project, participants realized unexpected rewards, such as public speaking skills and boosts to self-esteem.

Semmel adds that she believes that the museum’s contemporary visitors can garner more than just historical information from exhibits like “This Shall Be the Land for Women.”

“History isn’t just content in a bell jar,” Semmel says. “Programs like these are as relevant to today’s headlines as any academic study.” Apparently, the public agrees. While attendance at traditional historical museums shrinks, the Women of the West Museum Web site receives more than 200,000 hits per month.

Meanwhile, Semmel and her staff continue to revisit and reinterpret Western women’s history, always with an eye to its contemporary relevance. “These stories aren’t frozen in amber,” says Semmel. Like the Women of the West Museum, they’re a work in progress.

Jennifer Woodhull is a free-lance writer based in Boulder, Colo.


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