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New-York Historical Society celebrates the centennial of women's suffrage in New York with exhibition
Unidentified photographer, Inez Milholland on horseback, 1913. New-York Historical Society Library.

NEW YORK, NY.- The New-York Historical Society celebrates the centennial of women’s suffrage in New York State with the premiere of its new film We Rise, a specially produced documentary film―narrated by Meryl Streep and featuring the song “We Are Here” written and composed by Alicia Keys―that places women at the center of political thought and action that reshaped the country in the early 20th century. Hotbed is New-York Historical’s latest exhibition from its Center for Women’s History and brings to life the bohemian spirit of early 20th-century Greenwich Village and the crucial role of the neighborhood’s female artists and activists in winning the vote. On view from November 3, 2017 – March 25, 2018 in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery, Hotbed uses immersive installations and more than 100 artifacts and images to explore how the vibrant artistic and political culture of the Village served as an incubator and revitalized the suffrage movement.

We Rise, a cornerstone of the new Center for Women’s History, premiered on November 3 in New-York Historical’s state-of-the-art ground-floor theater, where it will be shown in regular rotation with the destination film New York Story. Through artistic projections, immersive sound, and theatrical lighting, the unique 17-minute film We Rise explores a riveting chapter in New York and American history during the early 20th century as the city was emerging on the world stage. Unprecedented challenges of the era—the extreme gap between rich and poor, the influx of millions of immigrants, unspeakable working and living conditions, and limited freedoms for African Americans and women—compelled an entire generation to respond in a range of ways. The film, created by Donna Lawrence Productions, profiles some of the remarkable women whose advocacy for change had lasting effects, including Lillian Wald, nurse and founder of Henry Street Settlement; Addie Hunton, suffragist and leader of black women’s organizations; Margaret Sanger, birth control activist; and Clara Lemlich, a leader of the massive strike of shirtwaist workers in New York’s garment industry in 1909; as well as women like Clara Driscoll, head of the Tiffany Studios Women’s Glass Cutting Department, who found new opportunities for work and independence in New York City in that time period.

“We are proud to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage in New York this year with a powerful new film and exhibition, each one showing how a determined group of people struggling for rights and equality can succeed in creating change,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “We Rise recounts a period of history that tends to be overlooked in textbooks, but the impact of those first decades of the 20th century leading up to women's suffrage in New York is still felt today. Hotbed, with its little-told narrative of how Greenwich Village and the people who flocked to it pushed for suffrage in New York, is an exhibition that especially resonates with our times, with examples of contemporary grassroots groups such as the Women’s March taking center stage in the fight for human dignity.”

Exhibition Highlights
Building on the work of 19th-century pioneers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the modern suffrage movement drew new energy and inspiration from the simultaneous battles for labor reform, birth control, and racial justice. Bohemian artists and writers, many of them women, transformed the image of suffragism into something new and glamorous, and engaged a cross-class coalition to win the vote in New York in 1917. Upon entering the exhibition in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery, visitors to Hotbed will feel as if they have stepped into a Greenwich Village café at the beginning of the 20th century. Adding to the raffish and colorful atmosphere, magazines and books reveal the artistic, social, and political ferment of this self-consciously vanguard community.

But Village women were pursuing freedoms beyond the vote as well. Visitors will view the work of America’s first female photojournalist, Jessie Tarbox Beals, who captured images of Village places and personalities, including women who were making lives of their own. Also on view will be examples of early forms of birth control and pamphlets such as Family Limitation, daringly written and distributed by Margaret Sanger. A poster printed in February 1914 for a meeting at Cooper Union asks, “What is Feminism?” and a reproduction of a bohemian blouse and skirt shows the radical rejection of constraining fashions.

Women in the Village were also active in movements for change elsewhere in the city, especially for peace and labor reforms. After the horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, women came together across class divisions to fight for better working conditions. The mass demonstrations associated with the labor movement provided the suffrage movement with inspiration and developed into the now iconic image of parades with sash-wearing and sign-carrying women marching for the right to vote in New York. Reproductions of contemporary newspaper reports show women of many different backgrounds and ethnicities joining together to march for suffrage.

Black women were active in the New York suffrage movement and sought the vote in part as a tool to fight racial violence. On display are suffragist and journalist Ida B. Wells’ 1892 pamphlet “Southern Horrors” and other materials concerning the fight against lynching. In 1909, in response to the widespread terror of lynching, the NAACP was established—its headquarters in the Village—along with several pacifist and civil liberty organizations. The NAACP organized a march on July 28, 1917, of 10,000 black New Yorkers down Fifth Avenue in silence punctuated by muffled drums. The march was a response to recent riots in East St. Louis, but also addressed lynching and discrimination. Newsreel footage from the 1917 march is being shown.

The exhibition also features images of the creative stunts and performances that drew attention to the movement. One photograph shows a biplane piloted by a woman intending to shower suffrage leaflets onto people below. The newspaper article “Creates Sensation with Suffrage Plea Painted On Her Pretty Back” features a New York actress named Dorothy Newell who created a national sensation when she wrote “Votes for Women” on her back as a publicity stunt.

Both the pro- and anti-suffrage camps seized on the new medium of moving picture theaters, known as “nickelodeons” for their five-cent ticket price. Thomas Edison and Charlie Chaplin created comedies poking fun at suffragists while campaigners for the vote produced propaganda films featuring footage of rallies and tales of women cleaning up political corruption. Visitors can watch a compilation of clips from newsreels and historic films from the era set to music of the time period in a recreation of a “nickelodeon.”

After the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, the fight for the vote took on new urgency. Suffragists were divided over whether to support the war. Those who did used broadsides, posters, and magazines to argue that women shared every cost of war but had no say in whether and how it was fought. Pacifists on the other hand believed the war exploited women and working people. War propaganda drew on the visual iconography of suffrage, with idealized female figures representing patriotic ideals, like the 1917 poster Wake Up America! depicting a sleeping woman dressed in red and white stripes. Many suffragists who supported the war saw it as an opportunity to prove their patriotism and to insist on their right to full citizenship.

On November 6, 1917, New York suffragists celebrated their state’s victory. Just three years later, the 19th Amendment was ratified, making women’s suffrage the law of the land. Women justly celebrated their hard-won victory even as some bemoaned the compromises that helped achieve it. Hotbed concludes by demonstrating that the suffrage victory was not the end of the story but the beginning of a century of women’s social justice activism that continues today.

Hotbed is curated by Joanna Scutts, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History, and Sarah Gordon, Marie Zimmermann Legacy Curatorial Scholar in Women’s History, under the direction of Valerie Paley, vice president, chief historian, and director of the Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society.

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