WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–For nearly a century, a treasure trove of artifacts used in the campaign to enfranchise women has been aging quietly in boxes tucked away in a historic house and museum here.
But the priceless collection has been unearthed, the boxes unpacked and their contents polished and placed on the virtual shelves of an online exhibit that went live on March 3, the 93rd anniversary of a suffragist parade down Pennsylvania Avenue that relaunched the battle for women’s right to vote.
That battle–a critical one in the ongoing fight for full equality in the United States–was won in 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.
On display are digital images of artifacts that together reveal the story behind that battle, which is often glossed over in U.S. history books. Images show the hand-sewn banners used to picket the White House; the congressional score cards used to lobby members of Congress; the original political cartoons challenging the reigning patriarchal establishment; the suffrage newsletters that circulated the country; and the black-and-white photographs of the women who fought for voting rights.
The exhibit was three years in the making. Creators plan to use the material in conjunction with history, civics and women’s studies classes at schools and universities across the country. Currently in the works is a Girl Scout badge and lesson plans that will be made available to teachers at all school levels.
Women’s History Back on the Map
"This is a new tool to get this history back on the map," said Amy Conroy, executive director of the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, a national historic landmark on Capitol Hill that houses the artifacts. The structure–just a few blocks away from the Capitol–also serves as the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party and was the home for 43 years of Alice Paul, the woman who led the suffrage movement and authored 85 years ago the still-unratified Equal Rights Amendment.
Officials also hope the images will be disseminated in the media, said Laura Hubbard, a spokesperson for the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum.
"We want to get our collection out there," she said. "We definitely hope that in this election year with women being such a focus that people realize that it wasn’t so long ago that women didn’t have the right to vote."
The artifacts had been buried in boxes for decades at the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum and at an off-site facility maintained by the National Park Service.
The collection aged in boxes as members of the National Women’s Party continued their push for equal rights. That began to change toward the end of the last decade, when members decided to leave the lobbying to other women’s rights advocacy organizations and focus instead on educating the public about the fight for gender equality through the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum and the artifacts housed within the building.
10,000 Artifacts to Go Online
Their first step was restoring the house and museum, a $25 million project that was largely completed in 2004. Since then, they have turned their attention to preserving the artifacts. The exhibit unveiled at the beginning of March features 400 images and is a preview of the full collection of more than 10,000 artifacts, all of which will eventually be displayed online. It was made possible by a donation of a state-of-the-art digital imaging system from IBM, the business technology firm based in Armonk, N.Y.
"Our collection tells the story of a movement that’s a hundred years old," said Jennifer Spencer, collections manager at the Sewall-Belmont House. "It’s humongous."
The unveiling of the project came one day after a separate coalition of women’s rights advocates held a news conference to press Congress to pass legislation that would allow a vacant federally owned building on Pennsylvania Avenue to be used as a site for a National Women’s History Museum.
The legislation has passed the Senate by a unanimous vote but has been stalled in the House of Representatives. But the coalition hopes to persuade members of the House to change their minds with a national letter-writing campaign and a video plea featuring actress Meryl Streep.
"We need a continuing commitment to the women who made America what it is today," Streep says in the video. "The same commitment they had and continue to have to our nation. A commitment to our mothers, our daughters, our sisters and wives. A commitment that says, ‘We honor you.’"
Push for Women’s Museum
If the legislation is approved, the museum would take five to seven years to complete and would involve a $150 million fundraising campaign, said museum president Susan Jollie. The space would allow 125,000 square feet on three floors to be used for public displays–about the same amount of public space available at the new National Museum of the American Indian, she added. The museum would also feature a research center, traveling exhibits and upgraded online exhibits.
A women’s history museum "will allow present and future generations to be educated about the contributions and achievements of women–who make up 52 percent of the population–have made to our country and the world," Jollie said in a statement. "Women have not received the recognition they deserve."
Until it is completed, the museum will exist online with virtual exhibits, part of a larger effort to make women’s history more accessible to the public via the Internet.
Virtual projects at the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum and the National Women’s History Museum are two of several similar projects around the country.
These include virtual projects at the Library of Congress and at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., the University of Texas at San Antonio and Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pa.
"The digitization of collections and archives is . . . the new wave of the future," said Hubbard, noting that they are less expensive to fund and more accessible to the public than physical sites. "It’s great that we’re starting at the beginning of the wave."
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.
For more information:
Sewall-Belmont House and Museum:
National Women’s History Museum: