By Rachel Stockman
Tuesday, August 26, 2003
As women's right to vote turns 83 today, the great-great-granddaughter of suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton talks about a collection dedicated to her ancestor's cause and her own wish to add to feminist history.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Coline Jenkins-Sahlin is the great-great-granddaughter of one of the country's most venerated suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She is far from satisfied that the 19th Amendment has lived up to its full potential.
In an interview in her Old Greenwich, Conn., home, she points out that although women represent the majority of the population, they occupy only 14 out 100 seats in the U.S. Senate and only 59 out of 435 seats in the House of Representatives.
"America's greatest bestowal of democratic freedom was the women's right to vote, which brought in the majority of the democracy--women," Jenkins said. (She has a court appearance scheduled for today to officially drop the Sahlin as part of her name.) "We all need to work to ensure women take advantage of their rights."
Jenkins, a Republican, went on to marvel at how recently women won the right to walk into a voting booth and pull a lever. "I still can't believe that women gained the right in my mother Rhoda's lifetime. She is only 83. That is why I think it is so important to have this trust to further women's rights."
The Elizabeth Cady Stanton Trust, to which Jenkins was referring, consists of 3,000 items of memorabilia from the women's suffrage movement that include documents about where to assemble for a suffrage march, an umbrella that sheltered a marcher in a suffrage parade and numerous banners and sashes that say "vote for women."
She hopes to find them a permanent home in a museum or other institution. But until then, she is cramming them into a small linen closet in her home. The collection is being archived and catalogued with the help of an advisory committee whose members include museum curators, historians, philanthropists and civic educators.
The trust's 22-member board is also looking for a major institutional partner--such as the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y., Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., or The National Constitution Center, in Philadelphia--to help make the collection available to the public.
"I would like people to join the bandwagon of this collection," she said. "We have a national treasure, one of the largest collections in the nation. We want to have it mainstreamed to the public."
Jenkins says that one of her favorite pieces of the collection is a cardboard window pane sign, created in the early 1900s, that reads, "A woman living here has registered to vote thereby assuming responsibility of citizenship."
Another piece with sentimental value for Jenkins is a letter from Cady Stanton to her abolitionist ally Lucretia Mott after the birth of Cady Stanton's first daughter.
"In the letter, she is clearly excited that she has brought another woman into the world who will continue her fight for women's rights," Jenkins said. "I want everyone to have a part of the collection as a reminder of the women like my great-great grandmother who have come before us, who have worked so hard to ensure that we have the right to vote," she said. "It is a shame that more people don't take advantage of that right." Only 45.7 percent of those women eligible to vote in the United States voted in the 1998 election, according to the Federal Election Committee.
Jenkins started the trust four years ago, after meeting Marsha Weinstein, then the executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Women, at the 150th anniversary of the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y.
It was there, in 1848, that Cady Stanton and Mott are widely credited with starting the women's rights movement by issuing "The Declaration of Sentiments," an echoing of the Declaration of Independence that "insists" that women "have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States." It was signed by 68 women and 32 men, including the eminent African American thinker and writer Frederick Douglass.
After the 150th anniversary of that event--at which Hillary Clinton delivered the keynote speech and commemorated the work of six generations of Stanton women--Weinstein invited Jenkins' daughter, Elizabeth, to speak at a girls' leadership conference that she was sponsoring in Louisville, Ky. (Weinstein wanted to recruit Elizabeth because she had learned from Clinton's speech that she had written a chapter at the age of 13 about the family's legacy in a book, "33 Things Every Girl Should Know.")
From there a warm relationship began between the two women and a month later, Weinstein called Jenkins about jointly acquiring the suffragist "Votes for Women Collection" from Ceil and Chick Harris, elderly collectors from whom Weinstein had borrowed a handful of items that past summer for the Kentucky State Fair.
The Harrises, in their 70s and without children, couldn't bear to see the collection auctioned off piece by piece since they thought it had historic value as a whole. Weinstein and Jenkins mustered loans totaling $175,000 and used them to buy the collection, which in late 1999 became the basis for the not-for-profit trust.
Since acquiring the collection, Jenkins has been adding many suffrage memorabilia and, along the way, even fighting her own feminist battles. In a recent trip to Hudson, N.Y., for instance, Jenkins bought two historic World War II pieces.
"I still can't believe the conversation I had with a man while I was buying them," she fumed. "He said that women did not have a part in the war." Jenkins said she proceeded to remind the man that women kept the entire supply industry going during the war and that, if it hadn't been for women, men wouldn't have any planes or battleships.
Jenkins has a trove of family stories that aren't written down and part of the collection, but that do serve as footnotes to women's history.
Cady Stanton, she said, died 18 years before women were enfranchised on a federal level, so she died before her goal was reached. However, her great-granddaughter, Rhoda Barney Jenkins, was born on this same day in 1920, the very year the 19th Amendment was passed. It was like a posthumous double gift to Cady Stanton; the realization of her lifelong mission and another female descendant to help carry on her courageous work.
Rachel Stockman is entering Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. She has interned at the Greenwich Time in Greenwich, Conn., Fox News in New York City and The Aspen Times in Aspen, Co.
Coline Jenkins-Sahlin can be reached about the collection at mailto:Cocococo@juno.com
By Nancy Day