Talk by Edith Mayo, Curator Emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History at the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial’s Honorary Board Dinner on May 21, 2015.
I have been asked to share some thoughts with you tonight on the importance of the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial as an historic site.
In the latter years of my Smithsonian career, I team-taught a graduate class in Material Culture – the physical “stuff,” the three-dimensional artifacts of history, with a colleague and professor at the George Washington University. Each semester, I would ask if anyone knew who Alice Paul was. Perhaps one hand would go up, perhaps two. When I asked who knew about women being jailed for wanting the right to vote, I drew a complete blank. These graduate students did not come to this course from some exotic undergraduate background. All were either American History or American Studies majors, yet they knew nothing about this critical event in American history. Being “Jailed for Freedom,” as the women themselves called it, is the SINGLE BEST-KEPT SECRET IN AMERICAN HISTORY! It is long past due that this important Constitutional change is made PUBLICLY VISIBLE to all Americans, and that it was achieved through a bloodless revolution that jolted the entire political system. It completely changed the American political landscape – and achieved the largest extension of democratic freedoms in the history of the nation. When the Founders wrote about achieving “a more perfect union,” this will be the historic site that celebrates that monumental achievement; the site that recognizes the admission of 52% of the population into full citizenship with the guaranteeing of the most basic right of citizenship – the right to vote. Remember, we are NOT talking about a minority of any sort – we are talking about the American majority – women – finally achieving basic citizenship rights. The site commemorates more than the imprisonment of these courageous women – it represents the point – The Turning Point – at which women finally enter the Constitution!
That this major chapter in American history has largely been “written out” of our collective historical record and our national consciousness is nothing short of outrageous! If you ask the average citizen what he or she knows about the movement for “Votes for Women,” you often get a narrative that most people went around haranguing and harassing state legislators and Congressmen until men finally GAVE women the right to vote!! This site makes clear that no one GAVE women anything! Women, through the movement for woman suffrage, claimed power for themselves.
Suffrage was a full-fledged political reform effort that took five generations of activism and commitment to achieve. The movement had its own philosophers, its generals, its organizers, its foot soldiers, its writers – and its own separate political press. Because women had been omitted from the political process, they had largely been left out of the abundant political visual imagery of American politics. With the exceptions of the Goddesses of Liberty and Justice – famous since the Revolutionary era — one finds almost no political imagery appealing to women or reflecting their concerns and aspirations. Never mind, the women invented and developed their own. The suffragists, and their cohorts in the wider women’s movement at the turn of the century, developed a powerful political imagery that, until relatively recently, was used effectively to champion causes that concerned women’s life experiences.
In addition to using political tactics indigenous to American political life – political parades, protests, cartoons, campaign buttons, clothing, and lobbying, the suffragists added tactics borrowed from the “Votes for Women” drive in Great Britain – most notably the concept of holding the party in power responsible for lack of action on the woman’s vote question, and going to jail rather than paying fines for the “crime” of wanting to vote. The suffragists crafted a political movement that was powerful and ultimately effectively and – importantly – non-violent. These women were extremely proud that there was no violence used by the women. The only violence was TOWARD the women by the male-dominated political system.
Because of the tactics used by the women, and their effectiveness, the suffrage movement became THE POLITICAL MODEL for social and political reform movements for the remainder of the 20th century – most notably the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movements. Suffrage is rarely thought about in this context. The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial is the perfect place to teach that important historical fact.
The newly expanded Occoquan Regional Park offers the ideal physical location for this Memorial – next to the Lorton prison where the women were jailed – and expanded public facilities that will accommodate lectures, panels, and symposia where these critical Constitutional issues can be discussed and brought to the public. The site can become a major part of a Northern Virginia “Constitutional Trail,” along with Mount Vernon – George Washington was president of the Constitutional Convention and the first President under the new Constitution – and Gunston Hall the home of George Mason – father of the Bill of Rights. The Turning Point Suffrage Memorial will be the site at which WOMEN COME INTO THE CONSTITUTION, completing the inclusion of ALL citizens in our most basic document. Such a framing of these historic sites should prove a boon to Virginia’s tourist industry and historians and educators alike.
We MUST raise the funding to complete this historic site. Studies have shown that more Americans get their historical knowledge from historic sites and the popular media than gain that knowledge from history books or historical texts – one reason that Park Service sites are so popular with the public.
So, ladies and gentlemen, these courageous women, these “Silent Sentinels” who picketed the White House and were sent to prison for the right to vote, MUST remain silent no longer. Neither silent, nor invisible in our country’s narrative of freedoms. Thank you.