McCabe exhibit sheds light on early stateswomen

Her Hat Was In the Ring, an exhibit in the atrium of McCabe Library, brings to light the triumphs, struggles and stories of thousands of women who have run for political office from the 1850s to present day. Including early election ballots, buttons, postcards, and banners, the exhibit traces this significant aspect of the women’s rights movement.

In 1920, with the ratification of the 19th amendment, American women finally received the much-anticipated right to vote. History textbooks advertise these dates as turning points in the women’s rights movement, but what they often fail to mention are the thousands of women who ran for and were elected to office before 1920.

Since 2007, Dr. Wendy Chmielewski, the co-curator of the exhibit and chief curator of the Peace Collection at Swarthmore, has been collaborating on the project with Dr. Jill Norgren, a professor of political science and women’s studies at CUNY and author of a book on Belva Lockwood, the first women to run for president on a full national campaign.

Chmielewski’s passion for the project has been fueled by the stories of thousands of women who lived during the 19th and early 20th centuries whose accomplishments are relatively unknown.

“This whole project investigating the women [who] ran for office before 1920 has excited me for the last 8 or 9 years with the startling knowledge that so many women ran for office in the 19th and early 20th centuries and that in the early years it was often men who voted women into office at a time when the popular idea of a woman’s place was in the home,” Chmielewski explained.

Though women were denied national suffrage, certain states did give women some voting rights, allowing them to vote for specific positions, most particularly for educational posts. As early as 1869, for example, Wyoming gave women suffrage, and states including Utah, Colorado, and Idaho granted women suffrage in the later decades of the nineteenth century. Though the struggle for national women’s suffrage culminated in 1920, women in these particular states were granted suffrage much earlier, consequently allowing them to run for political offices. Women ran for positions on school boards, as state superintendents of schools, county clerks, county treasurers, and county recorders. During this time, many women pointed out the irony that women were allowed to run for political office but did not have the full right to vote. And contrary to what is often advertised, these women came from relatively diverse backgrounds. Single, married, divorced, and widowed women were found across the board.

This exhibit in McCabe is part of a larger project that Chmielewski, Norgren, and their team have been working on — namely a database that seeks to provide information on the roughly 3,000 to 3,500 women who campaigned or were elected to public office in the period before the fall of 1920. At the moment, the website contains records for 3,327 women who ran in 4,572 campaigns.

“I would like students and faculty to consider the exhibit and Her Hat Was In the Ring database project [as] starting points for further research,” Chmielewski said.

While the exhibit at McCabe Library does not chronicle the stories of all these women, it showcases glimpses into certain aspects of the history of women in office. The first and main display window is a broad overview of the six other display tables that encircle the atrium. The buttons, books, and ballots, pieces from Swarthmore’s own Peace Collection as well as the private collections of Chmielewski and Norgren, help bring to life the stories of women such as Belva Lockwood, Victoria Woodhall, Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton.

This exhibit is particularly relevant, since in just a few months the United States may see Hillary Clinton elected as its first female president. The exhibition, in addition to emphasizing the accomplishments of women in politics now, reminds us of the original female political pioneers who have made their campaigns possible. Belva Ann Lockwood (1830-1917), for instance, one of the women highlighted in the main display case, ran for the presidency in 1884 on a full national campaign, with Marietta Stow as her Vice President.

Victoria Woodhull, who ran for presidency in 1872 is another woman highlighted in the exhibit . She was a clairvoyant, a stockbroker, a newspaper publisher and an activist, and during her presidential campaign, she was backed financially by Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the wealthiest man in America at the time. According to the description in the display, Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, were notorious for their beliefs on free love, divorce, dress reform and sexuality. They were so notorious for their beliefs, in fact, that Thomas Nast, a famous cartoonist, called Victoria Woodhull “Mrs. Satan,” drawing the age-old comparison of sexually free and outspoken women to diabolic characters.

Moving around the lobby of McCabe, the other display tables group items under specific themes and titles, including “Cartoons and Satire,” “Presidential and Vice Presidential Candidates in the 20th and 21st Centuries,” and “Women in Other Countries,” among others.

Many of the satirical pieces sexualize or demonize women, showing cartoons and other drawings of women in fancy or skimpy clothing. One of the drawings in the “Cartoons and Satire” case has the caption “A Cabinet Meeting: When Our Betters Rule,” and it shows a group of beautiful young women in fancy evening gowns looking more like they are gossiping and talking over tea than discussing political affairs.

There are also inspiring stories at the other display cases, of women such as Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) who was the first African American woman elected to the New York State Assembly in 1965.

In all, the exhibit, through images and memoirs, chronicles famous, forgotten and unknown women who have helped pave the way for other women to exert their rights, whether that be in votes, dress or sexuality. Chmielewski hopes that the exhibit will reveal the hidden stories of early female political leaders.

“I hope that the simple facts and knowledge that women have been campaigning, and getting elected, to political office for over 160 years will surprise, but also inspire people, with a broader sense of the history of the fight for women’s full citizenship and civil rights,” Chmielewski explained.

The exhibit Her Hat Was In the Ring runs until February 28th, and Dr. Chmielewski and Dr. Norgren will be giving a talk at 12:00pm on Wednesday, January 27 in McCabe .

1 Comment

  1. As the ‘Guy Feminist’, I applaud the diligent work you have done compiling rare and valuable artifacts and information. Bravo! Preservation and public presentation are, I believe, critical for all of us to learn more HERstory. I hope the fact that Victoria’s younger sister by seven years, Tennessee Celeste Claflin ran for the New York State legislature prior to the Presidential campaign is also prominently displayed.

    One correction, the support and working relationship with the Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the wealthiest man in America, became strained to almost non-existent after his marriage to a distant cousin two years prior to the nomination for President. Surprising, after the enormous success Vanderbilt achieved during the Gold Scandal of 1869. The original robber baron would have never supported Victoria’s platform which included women suffrage, regulation of monopolies, nationalization of railroads, abolishing of the death penalty, and welfare plus vocational training for the poor. In 1872!

    My first volume of four, The Victoria Woodhull Saga, Outrageous: Rise to Riches is written as herstorical faction… history from a woman’s point of view based on facts, and also filling in the details behind the facts. I write as Victoria in a fictional autobiography. My goal is to make Victoria and Tennessee iconic figures for women everywhere symbolizing the ability to overcome every challenge and manifest a rich, rewarding, and influential life. I also dedicate one-half of all my income from the book to charities that support and give women, especially single moms the opportunity to improve their lives.

    Again, thank you for the great collection. As the banner motto of the first women-owned and operated Newspaper proclaimed: UPWARD & ONWARD

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