Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence

The Nineteenth Amendment, which allowed women to vote in the United States, was ratified 99 years ago. Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence, a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, features some of the countless American women who fought for nearly a hundred years to win the right to vote for themselves and their communities.

While some of the leading figures of the suffrage movement have received deserved appreciation, the crusade for women’s enfranchisement involved many individuals, each with a unique story to be told. Bringing attention to underrecognized individuals and groups, the exhibit looks at how suffragists used portraiture to promote gender equality and other feminist ideals, and how photographic portraits in particular proved to be a crucial element of women’s activism and recruitment. It also explores the reasons why certain events and leaders of the suffrage movement have been remembered over others, the obstacles that black women faced when organizing with white suffragists and the subsequent founding of black women’s suffrage groups, and the foundations of the violent antisuffrage movement.

These five activists are all featured in the exhibit and in the accompanying catalogue by curator Kate Clarke Lemay, which presents fresh perspectives on the history of the movement and sheds new light on the movement’s relevance for our own time.

The exhibit runs at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, from March 29, 2019January 5, 2020.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Studio Portrait of Alice Dunbar Nelson. Sitter: Alice Dunbar Nelson, Artist: R.P. Bellsmith. Gelatin silver print. ca. 1895. Alice Dunbar-Nelson papers, University of Delaware Library, Newark, Delaware.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson was a teacher, writer, and activist who mobilized black women’s clubs to support the war effort during World War I. The work of these clubs and the patriotism it represented helped prove that women deserved the right to vote.

 

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Artist: Sallie E. Garrity. Albumen silver print. c. 1893. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Ida B. Wells began advocating for black civil rights after being forcibly removed from a ladies’ train car because she was black. She took her case all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Wells also published a pamphlet of her lectures on lynching, which she delivered across the United States, England, and Scotland.

 

Zitkala-sa

Zitkala-sa. Artist: Joseph T. Keiley. Photogravure. 1898 (printed 1901). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Zitkála-Šá led the first national all-Indian organization that advocated for Indian rights, The Society of American Indians, and founded the National Council of American Indians. She fought for citizenship rights and was compared to Joan of Arc. Even after Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, thanks in part to Zitkála-Šá’s work, Native Americans in many states still were not allowed to vote.

 

Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Claflin Woodhull. Sitter: Victoria Claflin Woodhull, Artist: Mathew B. Brady. Albumen silver print on card. c. 1870. Fine Arts Library, Harvard University.

Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, promoted judicial strategies for winning the right to vote. She also fought back against the sexual double standard that allowed her to be criticized for her “free love” philosophy while male leaders such as Henry Ward Beecher suffered no public criticism for committing adultery.

 

Mary E. Church Terrell

Mary E. Church Terrell. Sitter: Mary Church Terrell, Artist: H.M. Platt. Albumen silver print. 1884. Courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives.

Mary Church Terrell devoted her life to activism after her friend Thomas Moss was lynched. She served as president of the National Association of Colored Women and spoke on racial equality before the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Her signature phrase was “Lifting as We Climb.”

Anna Frebel on women in science who paved the way

As a young girl growing up in Germany, I always felt drawn to the idea of discovery. Noticing my expanding interest in science, my mother cultivated my curiosity about the world and our place in the universe. She repeatedly gifted me biographies of women scientists who defied the odds to pioneer discoveries in their respective fields. Indeed, these stories of accomplishment and determination greatly fueled my desire to become an astronomer.

As I spent countless hours reading and exploring on my own, I would find myself alone but never lonely in my educational pursuits. Little did I know, this form of self-reliance would serve me well as I completed my advanced degrees and research into finding ancient stars to learn about the cosmic origin of the chemical elements — published in my book Searching for the Oldest Stars: Ancient Relics from the Early Universe.

These days, I fly to Chile to use large telescopes once or twice per year. This work means long hours spent in solitude carrying out our observations. It is usually then that I most strongly feel it again: a sense of fulfillment and pride in this discovery work which I was lucky to gain a long time ago by reading the life stories of women in science.

I fondly remember learning about the thrill of traveling across continents with inspiring naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) as she was researching and illustrating caterpillars and insects and their various life stages in the most detailed of ways. I met fierce and gifted mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891) who was the first woman in math to obtain a PhD (coincidentally from the university in my hometown) and who later became the first woman math professor in Sweden. One of the most profound role models remains two time Nobel prize winner Marie Curie (1867-1934), a remarkably persistent physicist and chemist who discovered radioactivity and new chemical elements. Reading about her years of long work in the lab to eventually isolate 1/10th of a gram of radium, I too could imagine becoming a scientists. Curie’s immense dedication to science and humanity encapsulated everything I wanted to do with my life. Finally, atomic physicist Lise Meitner (1878-1968) showed me how groundbreaking discoveries can be made when daring to invoke unconventional ideas to explain experimental results. She realized that atoms cannot be arbitrarily large. If too heavy, they fission, break apart, and thus produce various heavy elements from the bottom half of the periodic table.

Throughout the years, these stories have stayed with me. Their impact and insight gave me comfort and guidance during the many phases of my academic and professional life. It was more than a question of gender. It was the confidence in knowing the women who came before me had created a path for the next generation to travel, myself included.

Some of these books have traveled with me as I moved from Germany to Australia to the US for my career and my path to professorship. In many ways, I’ve incorporated central aspects from the lives and research of these giants in science into my own work. Hence, these women remain in my heart and soul – and by knowing their stories, I never feel alone. From my perspective, reading biographies thus remains one of the most important forms of personal and professional mentorship and growth.

Recently, through a collaboration with STEM on Stage, I became a science adviser to the living history film “Humanity Needs Dreamers: A Visit With Marie Curie”. I also rekindled my love for these ladies and their stories by crafting a short play in which I portray Lise Meitner as she recalls her discovery of nuclear fission in 1938/39. The play “Pursuit of Discovery” is followed by a slide presentation about my research and how Meitner’s work provided the theoretical framework for my current studies into the formation of the heaviest elements in the periodic table.

I’m often asked about the challenges facing women in science. Although we have made significant progress, one of the main challenges is providing mentorship and role models. In astronomy, the number of senior level women remains small compared to our male counterparts. To help change this ratio, I’ve devoted time to help mentor undergraduate and graduate women in physics and astronomy.

Whether reading biographies of women in science, mentoring, or becoming Meitner on stage, it is important to give credit to those who paved the way for the next generation, and to highlight the amazing and inspiring accomplishments of women in science. As I write in my book, “we stand on the shoulders of giants.” And by knowing their stories, we can better know ourselves.

Anna Frebel is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has received numerous international honors and awards for her discoveries and analyses of the oldest stars. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

 

Adrienne Mayor on Inspiring Women Writers

Adrienne Mayor is the author of  Gods and Robots, the fascinating untold story of how the ancients imagined robots and other forms of artificial life—and even invented real automated machines. In honor of Women’s History Month, we asked her to share some of the women writers who inspired her work on this book—and those who have captivated her since childhood.

Thinking about women whose writings have inspired me since childhood is a happy assignment. There are far too many to list, but here are seven. As a young bookworm in South Dakota, I haunted the public library and eagerly anticipated the Bookmobile’s weekly visit. I was reading the “Little House on the Prairie” books while my new elementary school, named after Laura Ingalls Wilder herself, was being built in the cornfield across the street from my house.

Captivated by the adventures of self-sufficient, independent kids free to roam without any grownups around, I loved the Moffat and Pye families created by Eleanor Estes (1906-1988). Based on her own childhood in the early 1900s and told with dry humor, Estes’ plots were filled with serious, real-life details. The kids gathered coal lumps on train tracks to keep warm in winter, investigated mysterious events, and recovered a kidnapped puppy—I was not a big fan of magic or fantasy.

Estes, a children’s librarian, wrote award-winning Children’s Literature. But I was spending my allowance on another sort of literature. Namely, comic books by the pioneering female cartoonist Marjorie Henderson Buell, the creator of Little Lulu. That smart, daring, sassy, audacious little girl who made her own rules was my first feminist hero.

My other favorites were The Phoenix and the Carpet and Five Children and It by E. Nesbit (1858-1924). A British socialist, Nesbit took up writing children’s books to support herself. Like Estes, E(dith) Nesbit had lost her father at an early age and was raised by a mother who struggled to make ends meet. Her stories were set in Edwardian England and the children were usually home alone, free to roam the countryside and London, not mention fabulous excursions to ancient Egypt and Babylon. Now, E. Nesbit’s plots did involve magic but in such a pragmatic fashion that the magic often became a nuisance and bother, compelling the five young siblings to be resourceful and inventive to survive the fantastic situations they found themselves in. As Gore Vidal noted in his review of Nesbit’s works (NY Review of Books), her boys and girls are intelligent, sarcastic, cruel, compassionate, selfish, cooperative, arrogant, funny, impulsive, rude, thoughtful–like adults but also like real children. Eleanor Estes, Marjorie Buell, and E. Nesbit were all unsentimental distillers of “the essence of childhood,” and their books are good to read at any age.

I Married Adventure, the autobiography of Osa Johnson, was another beloved book of my youth. Osa left Kansas to become an adventurer and documentary film pioneer who explored faraway Africa, the South Pacific, and Borneo in 1917-37. She and her husband each flew their own amphibious biplanes; they lived in tents and encountered exotic wild animals–with their primitive Eastman-Kodak movie cameras whirring all the while. I read Osa’s memoirs countless times, day-dreaming over the sepia photos, imagining where I might travel one day.

One scientist who inspired my own research and writing was Dorothy Vitaliano. A geologist, she invented the discipline of “geomythology.” In her path-breaking book Legends of the Earth: Their Geologic Origins (1973), Vitaliano proposed that scientific details of catastrophic natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods were preserved in folklore, myths, and legends around the world.

While working on Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology, I developed renewed admiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) written when she was nineteen. I hadn’t realized how strongly Shelley’s story was shaped by her knowledge of philosophy, science, and classical mythology about Prometheus, who fabricated the first humans and gave them fire. Shelley portrayed Victor Frankenstein the “modern Prometheus” for her era. I’m in awe of her ability to weave Immanuel Kant and alchemy, occult transference of souls, and advances in chemistry, electricity, and human physiology so marvelously into a timeless and gripping science fiction tale—at such a young age.

—Adrienne Mayor

 

 

Omnia El Shakry: Genealogies of Female Writing

Arabic

Throughout Women’s History Month, join Princeton University Press as we celebrate scholarship by and about women.

by Omnia El Shakry

In the wake of the tumultuous year for women that was 2017, many female scholars have been reflecting upon their experiences in the academy, ranging from sexual harassment to the everyday experiences of listening to colleagues mansplain or even intellectually demean women’s work. Indeed, I can vividly recall, as a young assistant professor, hearing a senior male colleague brush off what has now become a canonical text in the field of Middle East studies as “merely” an example of gender history, with no wider relevance to the region. Gender history rolled off his tongue with disdain and there was an assumption that it was distinct from real history.

Few now, however, would deign to publicly discount the role that female authors have played in the vitality of the field of Middle East studies. In recognition of this, the Middle East Studies Association of North America has inaugurated new book awards honoring the pioneering efforts of two women in the field, Nikkie Keddie and Fatima Mernissi. I can still remember the first time I read Mernissi’s work while an undergraduate at the American University in Cairo. Ever since my freshman year, I had enrolled in Cultural Anthropology courses with Soraya Altorki—a pioneering anthropologist who had written about Arab Women in the Field and the challenges of studying one’s own society. In her courses, and elsewhere, I was introduced to Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments, an ethnography of poetry and everyday discourse in a Bedouin community in Egypt’s Western desert. Abu-Lughod’s narrative was sensitive to questions of positionality, a lesson she both drew from and imbued with feminism. A second piece of writing, this time an article by Stefania Pandolfo on “Detours of Life” that interpreted the internal logic of imagining space and bodies in a Moroccan village gave me a breathtaking view of ethnography, the heterogeneity of lifeworlds, and the work of symbolic interpretation. 

In hindsight I can see that these early undergraduate experiences of reading, and studying with, female anthropologists profoundly impacted my own writing. Although I would eventually become a historian, I remained interested in the ethnographic question of encounters, and specifically of how knowledge is produced through encounters­—whether the encounter between the colonizer and the colonized or between psychoanalysis and Islam. In my most recent book, The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt, I ask what it might mean to think of psychoanalysis and Islam together, not as a “problem” but as a creative encounter of ethical engagement. Rather than conceptualizing modern intellectual thought as something developed in Europe, merely to be diffused at its point of application elsewhere, I imagine psychoanalytic knowledge as something elaborated across the space of human difference.

There is yet another female figure who stands at the door of my entry into writing about the Middle East. My grandmother was a strong presence in my early college years. Every Friday afternoon I would head over to her apartment, just a quick walk away from my dorm in downtown Cairo. We would eat lunch, laugh and talk, and watch the subtitled American soap operas that were so popular back then. Since she could not read or write, we would engage in a collective work of translation while watching and I often found her retelling of the series to be far more imaginative than anything network television writers could ever have produced.

Writing for me is about the creative worlds of possibility and of human difference that exist both within, but also outside, of the written word. As historians when we write we are translating between the living and the dead, as much as between different life worlds, and we are often propelled by intergenerational and transgenerational bonds that include the written word, but also exceed it.

Omnia El Shakry is professor of history at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt.

When the Women Set Sail

In 1852, after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning urged her friend, art critic and memoirist Anna Jameson to read the novel, and expressed her indignation when Jameson found the subject of the novel too incendiary for a woman to tackle. Barrett Browning wrote in her letter to Jameson: “[I]s it possible that you think a woman has no business with questions like the question of slavery? Then she had better use a pen no more.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s assertion of her obligations as a female writer and poet is just one example of female writers’ active participation in the debates about the crucial concerns of civil society. Instead of concerning themselves solely with their domestic lives, women writers over the centuries have devoted themselves to aspiration, adventure, and public discourse. With stories about traveling, emigration, escape, and exodus, they have confronted ideas such as class formation, slavery, warfare, feminism, globalism, and the clash of cultures.

At Home in the World by Maria DiBattista and Deborah Epstein Nord is a reevaluation of the works of women writers, from canonical figures such as Jane Austen and George Eliot, to contemporary writers like Nadine Gordimer and Anita Desai. The authors argue that a complicated relationship and a recurring dialectic of home and abroad remain central in the literary expression of women’s experiences over two centuries. Searching for a “promised land” or a site of true belonging (the Home with a capital “H”), these women writers find the idea of Home in need of constant rediscovery and reinvention.

And rediscover they do. At the conclusion of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Anne Elliot takes a brave step to liberation by accepting a future life of possible distress and impending war. Anne ends in a “non-place,” her possible life on a ship will be a life with indefinite location; however, this might offer her a true Home alongside Captain Wentworth, which promises conjugal happiness and a loving companionship. In Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, Lucy Snowe leaves England abruptly and impulsively for the town of Villette, and starts a journey of adventure and dislocation. She increasingly comes to “mark her place”, not as wife or keeper of a household, but as traveler, writer, and teacher. She retreats from bourgeois domesticity and begins to envision a new model of Home: a place that enables a woman to live and thrive alone in the world. Stepping out of the private realm and a conventional home provides a space of possibility—a new incarnation of Home begins to take shape at the moment when the women set sail.

When explaining the title of their book, DiBattista and Nord write: “Our title is meant to conjure the image of those dauntless women writers who ventured across the threshold that leads from home into the public thoroughfares of thought and action where history is made, the world reformed and reimagined. The peripatetics whose work and tradition we chronicle in these pages are determinedly and inventively moving toward a promised land—for so many called it that—where they hope to feel, at last, at home in the great world” (11). However, the discovery of a true Home is always problematic or even impossible, for its discovery or search often takes the form of “creating, writing, recording, and reporting back—activities that never really find a terminus” (248).

Public engagement by women writers is an ongoing process. Through continued dissent and active involvement with the most pressing issues in public life, they continue to forge an artistic path home in the world.

You can read the introduction to At Home in the World: Women Writers and Public Life, From Austen to the Present, by Maria DiBattista and Deborah Epstein Nord here.

Women’s History Month Book List

We have just welcomed March, which happens to be National Women’s History Month. Each year, the National Women’s History Project chooses a commemorative theme. This year’s theme is “Weaving the Story of Women’s Lives.”  Read more about the theme, here. To celebrate Women’s History Month, we have curated a must-read book list.

 

bookjacket The Match Girl and the Heiress
Seth Koven

 

bookjacket On Elizabeth Bishop
Colm Tóibín

 

bookjacket

Mothers of Conservatism:
Women and the Postwar Right

Michelle M. Nickerson

 

bookjacket

Why Gender Matters in Economics
Mukesh Eswaran

 

bookjacket

The Silent Sex:
Gender, Deliberation, and Institutions

Christopher F. Karpowitz & Tali Mendelberg

 

bookjacket The Great Mother:
An Analysis of the Archetype
*
Erich Neumann
Translated by Ralph Manheim
With a new foreword by Martin Liebscher

*published April 2015