Two new exhibitions link women's suffrage and civil rights movements
● By Richard Gaw
In the 1900s, two movements occurred in our nation’s history that were separated by four decades, but will be forever connected by their unbreakable mission to see social justice assume its rightful place in the equality of all men and women.
From now until June, each movement – women’s suffrage and civil rights for African-Americans – will be celebrated in a collaborative series of exhibitions at the Brandywine River Museum of Art.
Commemorating the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the museum is presenting “Votes for Women: A Visual History,” an exhibition that rediscovers the visual language of the women’s suffrage movement. Organized by Brandywine River Museum of Art curator Dr. Amanda C. Burdan, the exhibit – which will be open until June 7 -- features more than 200 artifacts that provide a compelling narrative of the suffrage movement through drawings, illustrations and posters from museums, historical societies and private collections; early film footage as well as historic photographs and banners from rallies and marches, including the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Procession in Washington D.C.; and examples of the costumes, clothing, sashes and other emblems of women’s activism worn by suffragists.
While the 19th Amendment finally granted women the right to vote, ongoing voting struggles persisted for marginalized groups following its ratification. Presenting an inclusive historical narrative, “Votes for Women: A Visual History” recognizes the significant contributions of women of color and their community networks, which have been historically overlooked, giving the false impression that women of color were absent from the struggle for voting rights.
As a way to recognize women of color from the suffrage movement, the museum has commissioned a diverse group of women artists to create “Hidden Figures of the Suffrage Movement,” a mural of illustrated portraits of some of the women whose role in winning voting rights has been historically minimized because of their race or ethnicity.
The exhibition will also schedule a series of public programs that will include lectures, music and theatrical performances, gallery talks and more.
“This exhibition picks up on the visual explosion of the suffrage movement in the early 20th century,” Burdan said. “With a younger generation joining the cause, there was a dramatic shift in the marketing of the movement and how the suffragists spread their message through the material culture of the time— making themselves and their campaign more visible.
“Votes for Women: A Visual History” not only highlights the success of these efforts, but also underscores how the imagery of the movement effectively penetrated American culture, creating a renewed momentum towards the finish line of ratification in 1920.”
Serving as a companion to the “Votes for Women: A Visual History,” “Witness to History” explores the historic March 25, 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama through the camera lens of Stephen Somerstein, then a 24-year-old college student.
The 55 photographs in the exhibition – which runs through June 14 -- capture the moment-by-moment imagery of the peaceful protest march that eventually led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Equipped with five cameras and only 15 rolls of film, Somerstein captured stunning photographs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent activists such as Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, John Lewis and Joan Baez, as well as demonstrators and bystanders who had gathered along the route.
“When we look back and see the struggles, the sacrifices and the literal blood that was shed in the women's suffrage and the civil rights movement, it becomes so much more important that we don't waste the sacrifices that have been made,” Burdan said. “A person voting for the first time doesn't always realize that it was their given right to cast a ballot, and it becomes inspiring to see the lengths to which people went in the early part of the 20th century and in the 1960s to secure that right, and that it is essential that we do not waste it.”
Burdan said that the power of the two exhibits rests in their respective visual elements.
"I think people react more strongly to visuals than they do to words,” she said. “It's more difficult to get people to read a speech about suffrage or a book about the Voting Rights Movement, but when we have the immediate impact of photographs and hand-stitched signage and banners, it's literally like touching history.”
The Brandywine River Museum of Art is located at 1 Hoffman's Mill Road in Chadds Ford. For more information about these and other upcoming exhibits and programs, visit www.brandywine.org.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.