In celebration of Women’s History Month and the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, the Brandywine River Museum hosts Votes for Women: A Visual History, an exhibition running through June 7 that includes drawings, illustrations, museum posters, historical societies and private collections that show the suffragists’ complex political messages. A companion exhibit, Witness to History: Selma Photography of Stephen Somerstein, remembers the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.
The museum’s curator, Amanda C. Burdan, shares how she became something of a history detective to bring Votes for Women to life.
Amanda C. Burdan: I was looking for a way to draw attention to women artists, knowing the centennial of the 19th Amendment was coming. I had selected one named Nina Allender, an illustrator whose work I thought fit really well with the Brandywine’s tradition of illustration. When I began looking at her fantastic women’s suffrage political cartoons, I realized I wasn’t understanding what she was referencing, and the visual language was lost on me. It took off from there—I wanted to look at the broader visual culture of that period so I could understand some of the symbolism.
AB: It has been an amazing process. I’ve been sort of like a history detective because these objects are mostly in historical societies, libraries and places like the collection of the National Women’s Party, not in art museums. It was an investigation to figure out who owned or had or preserved the banners that were marched in front of the White House, the sashes that women wore when they were marching, and the political cartoons. It was a different kind of research for an art historian to engage in.
AB: I just met a descendant of Susan B. Anthony and I couldn’t believe it. There is another significant figure in the suffrage movement whose name was Harry Burn, and he was the man that cast the final vote in the final state for ratification of the 19th Amendment. But one in particular who stands out is the descendent of Katherine Ruschenberger, Alexandra “Sandi” Tatnall, who shared personal papers and Ruschenberger’s will. Katherine was a Chester County woman who commissioned the casting of the Justice Bell, known at the time as the women’s Liberty Bell.
AB: I started with what I thought were the most visual and impactful ways that women got their argument for suffrage across—the really striking visual impact that women were not just making themselves visible at the time, they were drawing attention to themselves. Then we go through some of the more nuanced ways that women were making their cause visible. And then there are collections of ephemera, everyday life materials.
AB: I really love maps. I think they’re a great way to communicate visual information. There’s a section about maps, and there’s one map in particular from the Library of Congress. It’s huge and looks like it’s fallen apart. …It was actually intentionally taken apart and mounted to fabric, and that fabric has had grommets put in the upper corners, which means the woman who used this map folded it up and it would be protected [from any major damage].
AB: We were all just really struck by how very contemporary all these issues facing women 100 years ago sound—some of the same issues about equal pay, about the roles of men and women in society, about the traditional roles of men and women being challenged—are familiar to us. Women are still marching for the things they believe are right.
Published as “Suffragette City” in the March 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.