August 15, 2020 – August 1, 2021
It was 100 years ago, August 18, 1920, that women’s suffrage reached a monumental turning point with ratification of the 19th Amendment, and it is this story being told in the new exhibit, Votes for Women, on view August 15 – August 1, 2021, at The History Museum. This exhibit was written in conjunction with Jamie Wagman, Ph.D., Saint Mary’s College, and her students.
The 19th Amendment states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” When it was ratified, the long-fought-for legal guarantee of women’s right to vote was celebrated, although many groups continued to face barriers on the way to the polls. It was not until the 1965 Voting Rights Act that more of these barriers were eliminated.
Votes for Women explores the story of local suffragists like Alice Mannering, the first woman to run for public office in the state of Indiana. She campaigned as the socialist candidate in South Bend’s mayoral election of 1917. Annie Belle Boss, born in Elkhart in 1875, was active in the Elkhart branch of the Woman’s Franchise League and its successor, the Indiana League of Women Voters. Another Elkhart activist was Helen Beardsley, who founded the Elkhart Chapter of the Woman’s Franchise League of Indiana in April 1913. In 1920, she became the first president of the Indiana League of Women Voters. Known as a powerful speaker and influencer, her rally cry to get other women to commit to the push for women’s suffrage was: “Urge women in your city to apply and work for these positions and have your Leagues assist in every possible way.”
Votes for Women also features local women who have contributed to the South Bend community for its betterment. Among these women are philanthropist Ella Morris, who in 1959 saved the Palace Theatre—now the Morris Performing Arts Center– from demolition. She provided endless support to such organizations as the South Bend Board of Education, the Women’s Advisory Council of Notre Dame, and the South Bend Symphony Orchestra. Another local woman to enrich the area was Elizabeth Fletcher Allen, the first African American woman to practice law in South Bend as well as Indiana. Alongside her husband, J. Chester Allen, she championed the cause of civil rights in the community and worked tirelessly to bring about the desegregation of the Engman Natatorium in 1933. Josephine Curtis was influential in the arts and theater, as a founder of the H. T. Burleigh Music Association, an African American theater group. Together with Georgia Ward Bryant and James Lewis Casaday, she promoted professional standards within the company, earning for the group a reputation as an artistic pillar of the community.
Also on view at The History Museum is the traveling exhibit Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence, organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery. This project received support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. The poster exhibit explores the complexity of the women’s suffrage movement and the relevance of this history to Americans’ lives today. It addresses women’s political activism, explores the racism that challenged universal suffrage, and documents the ratification of the 19th Amendment which prohibits the government from denying U.S. citizens the right to vote on the basis of gender. It also touches upon the suffrage movement’s relevance to current conversations on voting and voting rights across America.