Museum Celebrates 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage With Exhibitions and More
To mark the centennial of women’s suffrage, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will celebrate the “Year of the Woman” in 2020 with two signature exhibitions designed to amplify women’s crucial role in history. On March 6, the museum will open “Creating Icons: How We Remember Women’s Suffrage,” and “Girlhood (It’s Complicated)” will open June 12.
The exhibitions will be mounted as part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative #BecauseOfHerStory. The initiative represents one of the country’s most ambitious efforts to collect, document, display and share the compelling story of women, deepening the understanding of women’s contributions to the nation and the world. It amplifies women’s voices to honor the past, inform the present and inspire the future. (Information is available at https://womenshistory.si.edu.)
The spotlight on women’s contributions will shine on other museum projects throughout 2020, including “Picturing Women Inventors,” a display celebrating the contributions of female inventors; “The Only One in the Room,” a showcase exploring women in business as part of the “American Enterprise” exhibition; and a focus on diverse female educators in the “Giving in America” exhibit. A variety of women’s history programs, and digital and education initiatives will expand this content.
The suffrage centennial exhibitions tie into other museum efforts under the tagline “Who Counts?” demonstrating that women’s history is political history. “Who Counts?” will link the museum’s efforts in collecting, documenting and creating civic engagement programs around the 2020 election, the census, the 15th Amendment and the 19th Amendment. The central messages of “Who Counts?” are broad and provide probing questions about the relationship between citizenship, resources and counting; how categories of belonging and exclusion are created and re-created over time; and how individuals and groups assert that they do count.
Exhibitions and Displays Opening in 2020
“Creating Icons: How We Remember Women’s Suffrage” Opens March 6, 2020; closes March 2021
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which recognized women’s right to vote, the museum will open “Creating Icons: How We Remember Women’s Suffrage.” Highlighting women’s achievements in winning suffrage, it invites audiences to explore how the country celebrates milestones, what people as a nation remember, what (and who) has been forgotten or silenced over time and how those exclusions helped create the cracks and fissures in a movement that continue to impact women’s politics and activism.
Using a jewel box approach, the museum will display a group of artifacts in conjunction with graphics and media, interweaving stories of the famous and the forgotten. The centerpiece of the exhibition will be a 6-foot-tall portrait of Susan B. Anthony. Painted by Sarah J. Eddy in 1900, the work depicts an idealized Anthony being presented with flowers by young boys and girls on her 80th birthday. The exhibition will also feature items donated between 1919 and 1920 by the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (now the League of Women Voters), materials related to Adelaide Johnson and Alice Paul, and contemporary items from the 2017 Women’s March as well as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s gavel.
“Who Pays for Education?” Thematic Case in “Giving in America” Opens March 18, 2020; closes TBD
Philanthropy to support education is the focus of the updated exhibition “Giving in America,” which looks at the historical role of philanthropy in shaping the United States. Since the nation’s beginning, Americans have grappled with who gets educated and who pays for education. The update will feature objects from women educators like Nannie Helen Burroughs, who founded the National Training School for Women and Girls in 1909 in Washington, D.C., and an Oklahoma teacher who made headlines for her roadside fundraising sign in 2017.
“The Only One in the Room” New Perspectives Case in “American Enterprise”
Opens April 16, 2020; closes April 2021
“American Enterprise” chronicles the tumultuous interaction of capitalism and democracy that resulted in the continual remaking of American business—and American life. The “Only One in the Room” in the exhibit’s New Perspectives case will illuminate eight businesswomen and female entrepreneurs who broke through tremendous barriers in their industries to create, innovate and provide an opening for others to follow. This case offers an opportunity to explore the trials and and contexts of women such as Lillian Vernon, founder of a major mail-order business; Sara Sunshine, part of the first wave of Hispanic advertising executives in the early 1960s; and geneticist Mary Dell Chilton, who battled sexism in science.
“Girlhood (It’s Complicated)” Opens June 12, 2020; closes Jan 2, 2023
The history of girlhood is not what people think; it is complicated. Young women are often told that girls are “made of sugar and spice and everything nice.” What is learned from history is that girls are made of stronger stuff. They have changed history. From Helen Keller to Naomi Wadler, girls have spoken up, challenged expectations and been on the frontlines of social change. Through their lives, what it means to be a girl—and a woman—has always been part of the American conversation. “Girlhood (It’s Complicated)” will showcase unexpected stories of girlhood, engaging the audience in timely conversations about women’s history.
With a design inspired by zines, the 5,000-square-foot gallery will have five story sections: Education (Being Schooled), Wellness (Body Talk), Work (Hey, Where’s My Girlhood?), Fashion (Girl’s Remix), plus seven biographical interactives stories, “A Girl’s Life.” The design will feature custom murals and illustrations by artist Krystal Quiles. The exhibition will tour the country through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service from 2023 through 2025.
“Picturing Women Inventors” Opens May 2020; closes TBD
Featuring stories of contemporary and historic women, this display is dominated by lively, larger-than-life images of female inventors. For many, the word “inventor” recalls images of men like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, but inventors come from every demographic and segment of society. Challenging pre-conceived notions about gender and innovation, “Picturing Women Inventors” looks at women inventors, visionaries and scientists at work. The stories of inventive women have been overlooked, undervalued and sometimes lost, not least because they have lacked the support and backing necessary to secure patents and develop inventions into marketable products or services. The display is meant to inspire with stories about what women inventors have accomplished and how their breakthroughs are part of people’s daily lives.
Associated Exhibitions and Displays Currently on View
“All Work, No Pay” Open Through 2021
Break rooms across America hold signs that read: “Your mother doesn’t work here.” The display “All Work, No Pay” examines just that: the implied expectation that women will take care of the housework. The display shows that despite making steps forward in the paid labor force, women continue to be responsible for the almost-timeless and undeniably endless unpaid work at home. Pockets, aprons, housedresses and a variety of other costumes meant for domestic work from colonial America to the 1990s are on display. Objects from various ethnic communities and classes highlight how women shared similar tasks across race and class despite the complicated dynamics and inequalities between them. Through this display, visitors can see how women have always worked and examine the value and implications of unwaged labor in the home.
“The First Ladies” (Permanent)
The Smithsonian’s original “First Ladies” Collection was established in 1912 as the first collection focused on women and the first exhibition to feature them prominently. The 100 plus year tradition continues with the modern “First Ladies” exhibition which explores the unofficial but important position of first lady and the ways that different women have shaped the role to make their own contributions to the presidential administrations and the nation. More than two dozen gowns are featured including ones worn by Jacqueline Kennedy, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama and Melania Trump. The exhibit encourages visitors to consider the changing role played by American women over the past 200 years.
“American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith” (Permanent)
The story of women’s suffrage is told in the “American Democracy” exhibition which examines America’s bold experiment to create a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” When the United States was founded, the framers of the Constitution left individual states to determine who among their residents was eligible to vote, creating a country of citizens with unequal representation, rights, and responsibilities. The women’s suffrage amendment was first introduced in 1878 but was not ratified for over four decades, in 1920. The exhibition features suffragist pennants and banners, and a slogan-painted wagon that accompanied suffragists to rallies.
Throughout the year, the museum will present special programs, including “Women in Jazz” during April’s Jazz Appreciation Month. The museum’s robust theater program allows visitors to engage with a National Women’s Party suffragist as she gathers supporters (and convinces dissenters) of a woman’s equal right to vote as well as with the “wheelwoman.” The wheelwoman character engages visitors in the history of the Good Roads and Rational Dress movements, as well as how the bicycle helped shape the women’s liberation movement, women’s suffrage and better transportation. The museum’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation will bring Paralympic skier Sarah Will to its “Innovative Lives” program in May. For updated program listings, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu.
Through incomparable collections, rigorous research, and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. The museum is located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th Streets, and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit https://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000. Explore the museum’s social media on Twitter @amhistorymuseum, on Facebook at @National Museum of American History and on Instagram @amhistorymuseum.