Radcliffe is Reshaping Our Understanding of the Fight for Suffrage

Jane Kamensky (left), director of the Schlesinger Library at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, with Kenvi Phillips (right), curator for race and ethnicity. Courtesy of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

On August 26, 1943, leading suffragist and Radcliffe College alumna Maud Wood Park returned to her alma mater for the opening of the Women’s Rights Collection, an archive founded thanks to her donation of manuscripts, books, letters, and ephemera documenting the campaign for women’s voting rights.  Not coincidentally, that day was also the 23rd anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, a victory in which Park had played an instrumental role, first as a student at Radcliffe College and then as a skillful and savvy congressional lobbyist.

In her speech to the Radcliffe community that August afternoon, Park expressed hope that her collection would be used “with profit and inspiration.”  Over many decades, her gift was faithfully nurtured to grow into what is now the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

As the centenary of suffrage approaches, the Schlesinger’s unparalleled collection is at the heart of a major commemorative initiative:  the Long 19th Amendment Project, a four-year, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-supported program of scholarly activities and public events led by historian Jane Kamensky, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library.

women assembled at a table sewing a flagAlice Paul sewing stars on the suffrage flag, ca. 1920–1925. Courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

The project emphasizes the library’s role as “a catalyzer of scholarship,” says Kamensky, the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard and a 2006 recipient of the Mellon Foundation’s New Directions Fellowship.  And while there is a strong scholarly component to the Long 19th Amendment Project, including fellowships for educators and advanced researchers, Kamensky adds that by the end of the project, she and her team will have created an open-access digital portal to connect transnational audiences to the library’s resources and other documents, data sets, and teaching materials.  In doing so, she hopes the archive will help shape a broader understanding of the women’s suffrage movement over time and in all of its complexity, acknowledging not only the achievements resulting from the passage of the 19th Amendment, but also its profound limitations.

As she and her Schlesinger colleagues finalize the program for the September 2020 capstone conference, Professor Kamensky spoke with us about the origins of the Long 19th Amendment Project, its relevance to the 2020 presidential election, and the influence of her New Directions Fellowship on her work today.

The Long 19th Amendment Project does not confine suffrage to a fixed time period or population.  How exactly was the idea for this project born?

In 2015, the year I started at Harvard, my Schlesinger Library colleagues and I knew we must do something to observe the centennial of the 19th Amendment.  A lot of what I saw being organized was about people wearing white and purple and gold, restaging suffragette parades—that kind of thing.  Ceremonials have their place, but didn’t seem to fit with the library’s role as a cultural institution and catalyzer of scholarship.

So a small group of scholars sat down and started talking about where we saw the siloing of the history of women’s suffrage, which I think is marginalized in all the ways that American women’s history often is.  Someone in the meeting said, "I think we need a long 19th Amendment, just as the long 19th century has redefined our understanding of a world made by war, and the long Civil Rights Movement as a concept has fundamentally redefined our understanding of the shape of the African American freedom struggle."

Why was it, we wondered, that scholars of American political and constitutional history, and of African American history, were not thinking about the centennial of the 19th Amendment much at all?  What we saw was an opportunity to tell new stories.

women surrounded by an antique cart in front of a university buildingFounding of the Woman's Rights Collection at Radcliffe College, August 20, 1943; students pulling a cart from which suffragists had sold The Women's Journal. Courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

You’re nearly halfway through this four-year initiative, which includes several fellowships.  What do you anticipate will be the outcomes of this research?

The web portal, which is going to be the most permanent legacy of the Mellon grant, will involve digitizing our own materials and partnering with other institutions to do the same.  We’re also going to create a Suffrage syllabus—like the Charleston syllabus and the Ferguson syllabus—with out-of-the box teaching tools ready for educators of various age groups through the portal.

The project’s research support includes yearlong Mellon-Schlesinger Fellowships within Radcliffe’s flagship fellowship program, as well as large-scale summer grants not only to postsecondary scholars and educators, but also to high school teachers. We’re also creating two new courses for Harvard College students, taught with Schlesinger materials and centered on topics that fall under the Long 19th Amendment umbrella: one on women and abolition and the other examining citizenship and solidarity movements in the global south.

We’ve had public programming along the way, the fellows will give major public talks, and we’re in the process of scheduling additional public events in spring 2020.  But the big public program will be a two-day capstone conference on September 24–25, 2020.  It will be organized around particular moments in this Long 19th Amendment history, and will explore various “years of the woman,” in whicheither the promise or the peril of women emerging as citizens became an object of national scrutiny.

The conference couldn’t be timelier given the upcoming 2020 election.  What panels might we expect to see?

By the time the conference starts, we’ll be six weeks from a presidential election where the voting pattern of women—particularly of African American women—may be determinative.  The investigation of the gender gap in all of its regionalized, racialized, age-based crosshatch forms will be especially fresh and urgent in all of our minds, especially with the potential for major party candidates who are female.

We’ll investigate origin stories about the movement around 1848 [Seneca Falls Convention], 1870 [the ratification of the 15th Amendment giving black men the right to vote], and the Reconstruction amendments as moments where the relationship of the vote to slavery, to reparations for slavery, to defining the American polity in the wake of the Civil War became urgent.

In the 1920 session, we want to call attention not only to the achievement of Women's Suffrage through the 19th Amendment, but also the contemporaneous heat around immigration in the national conversation so that the huge influx of female voters—the largest-ever one-time influx of voters to the American political engine—was accompanied by the harder drawing of boundaries around other aspects of American citizenship.

advocate marching in parade in front of women's liberation bannersFlo Kennedy at N.O.W. march, 1972. Photo by Bettye Lane. Courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

That sounds extremely prescient.  How else will you link your archival research to the present day, especially in light of continued efforts to achieve universal suffrage?

With the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the principle of one person, one vote—which, by the way, had never been the suffragist principle at all—we’ll look at the rise of voting blocs, not only in terms of women and African Americans and racial gerrymandering, but also the rise of gay and Latinx voting blocs.  Those topics will be prominent in our session centered around 1982, which is the year the Equal Rights Amendment expired without ratification. The activism of conservative women was central in that story, and we’ll talk about the emergence of women on the right as a powerful political constituency, and about the long history of women as officeholders as well as voters.

Considerations of race, of political ideology, and of law will cross-cut through the whole event, and we’re hoping that each of the sessions will be richly interdisciplinary and, in many cases, transnational.  It will really showcase the fruits of research that Mellon’s support has catalyzed.

The interdisciplinary nature of this historical undertaking at Schlesinger echoes the vision of Mellon’s New Directions Fellowship, which you were awarded in 2006.  Is there a connection between your experience as a fellow and your teaching and leadership roles?

I think that the brilliant intervention of the New Directions Fellowship is to explore the possibility of something radically different.  Given the long arc of humanistic careers, scholarly work should continue to generate curiosity-driven research and unpredictable directions.

Those were career qualities nurtured by the fellowship that, when the Schlesinger opportunity came along, made me embrace that kind of curiosity.  I think Schlesinger has had a long history of trying to be innovative and fearless, and I feel really fortunate to have brought the kind of intellectual trajectory that Mellon helps to nurture to an institution that is continually looking for what I might call "new directions" for the history of women.