As we launch our Young Suffrage exhibition, we would like to share a series of interviews with academics who are actively studying the suffrage movement and women’s rights around the world. Below is an extensive Q&A with professor Allison K. Lange. Questions from Girl Museum are bolded.
How did you become interested in studying suffrage and women’s political movements?
A wonderful class with spectacular professors sparked my interest in women’s movements. The movement for suffrage—once a popular term meaning the right to vote—spanned nearly a century. So, if you’re interested in 19th-century America, it’s impossible to overlook. What really drew me to my topic was a photograph of suffragists picketing the White House in 1917. Today, we often see photographs of protestors outside of the White House, but suffragists were the first-ever group to do it. I wanted to learn more about these women and their bold actions. Why did they hire professionals to take their photograph and send it to newspapers? Who opposed them and why? How did suffragists keep up the fight for the vote for so many years?
I’m particularly interested in your forthcoming book about gender, images, the suffrage movement, and political power. What was your research process like? How long did the book take to complete?
Thank you! I have been working on this project for a decade, so I’ve spent a lot of time working with suffrage photographs, posters, and cartoons. More and more images are being digitized and are now easily found online through places like the Library of Congress. I also researched women’s rights newspapers, personal letters between activists, and the papers of their organizations.
Tell us about the most surprising or unique thing you uncovered in your research.
The most surprising part of my research was the popularity of our first First Lady Martha Washington in 19th-century America. She is still the first and only woman whose portrait has been printed on US currency. Americans read biographies of her, and often hung portraits of her and her husband George Washington on the walls of their parlors. Today, people seem more interested in Abigail Adams or Dolley Madison, but Martha Washington was a beloved figure. To many, she was a model for American women because she supported her husband’s work by hosting events and caring for his household.
What do you think is the most common misconception people have about young women and their place in the suffrage movement?
When we think about women’s rights leaders in history, we often imagine them as older women. They took a lot of portraits when they were popular leaders, and those are the ones that are easiest to find. But they started out as reformers when they were very young! Susan B. Anthony joined the antislavery movement years before she fought for women’s rights, and Mary McLeod Bethune started a school for black women before she was 30. Young women and girls marched in suffrage parades across the country. Artists also drew lots of pictures (like this one) that feature girls demanding the vote too. Women can create change at any age.
Besides women’s suffrage, what is your favorite period of history to read about/study and why?
I love studying historical photographs. Lately, my favorite photographer is Frances Benjamin Johnston, who lived from 1864 to 1952. She was one of the first female professional photographers in the United States. Johnston took portraits of society ladies, documented life at the early African American college Tuskegee Institute, and later became a landscape photographer. She challenged limitations on women and photographed herself in remarkable ways. In one portrait from the 1890s, she shows off her ankles, smokes, and drinks a beer! At the time, that picture would have been incredibly scandalous. She wanted her viewers to be shocked.
Anything else that you would like people to know about your work and your research?
One of the things that I’ve enjoyed is learning how women’s rights activists persisted in the past. Despite failures along the way, they kept working to create a more equal society. I hope we can do the same.
Find Dr. Allison K. Lange’s upcoming book, Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, here.
Girl Museum Inc.