Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a talk at the New York Historical Society, about radical women of the 1910s and 20s. For the first half of the event, we got to explore the newly opened exhibition, Hotbed, which is on the 4th floor of the Historical Society if you‚Äôre interested or in the area. I didn‚Äôt really know what to expect of the exhibition, but I thought it was fantastic ‚Äî I learned a lot, and the exhibit focused on the women of Greenwich Village, a familiar area of the city to me, so I was thrilled to recognize different places displayed in the exhibition.
Hotbed begins with an explanation of the exhibition, which I will share in its entirety, because I think it sets up the rest of this blog nicely.
‚ÄúIn the early 20th century, New York City‚Äôs Greenwich Village was a unique American hotbed of political, artistic, and social activity. Men and women of all backgrounds crowded its cobbled streets, cheap apartments, clubs and cafes, drawn by the shared belief that they could change the world. At the heart of their crusade, lay women‚Äôs rights: the freedom to control their own bodies and minds, to do meaningful work even if they married, and above all, to vote. 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, racial justice, and peace. Bohemian artists and writers transformed the image of suffrage into something new and glamorous, and joined a racially diverse, cross-class coalition to win the vote in New York in 1917. All were animated by the excitement of a new era in New York City, the cultural capital of the nation.‚Äù
I learned a lot from this exhibition, and in particular about women that I had only vaguely heard of but didn‚Äôt know that much about, like photographer Jessie Tarbox Beals, and activists Crystal Eastman and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. The thrilling thing for me when looking at all of the different things on display was recognizing one of the names of the donors. There was a collapsible ‚Äúsoapbox‚Äù designed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton‚Äôs granddaughter, Cornell-trained engineer, Nora Stanton Blatch DeForest, which she used at suffrage rallies. The soapbox was donated by one of Elizabeth Cady Stanton‚Äôs descendants, Coline Jenkins, whom I actually met and had a great conversation with over the summer at Convention Days in Seneca Falls. It was very cool to see that item and realize that I knew the woman who donated it.
The exhibition also had a ‚ÄúNickelodeon‚Äù section that showed parts of old rallies and early feminist films ‚Äî my favorite part was a clip that showed a group of young women, probably around my age, who had just cast ballots for the first time, shortly after gaining the vote in 1920.
The exhibition was weirdly emotional, and especially after speaking to one of the other women there, who was probably the same age as my grandmother. We chatted for a bit, and she turned and said to me: ‚ÄúLook how far we‚Äôve come, but we‚Äôve got a long way to go, and your generation is going to continue the fight, for all of us.‚Äù
After perusing the exhibition, we all settled down for the discussion. Titled ‚ÄúWomen of the Village,‚Äù the talk centered on two women who I didn‚Äôt know much about ‚Äî Crystal Eastman and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Flynn scholar and professor Lara Vapnek, and professor and author Blanche Wiesen Cook, along with Hotbed curators Joanna Scutts and Sarah Gordon led the discussion, and I came away having learned a lot about some incredible women, but also wanting to know more about them.
Throughout the discussion, I took detailed notes, because that‚Äôs the kind of nerd that I am, and one of the things that stands out to me is that both women were heavily influenced in their politics and in their radicalism by their own mothers, who were both strong, independent women in their own right. That got me thinking about the ways that I have been influenced by my mother, and the ways in which she‚Äôs taught and encouraged me to go beyond what I think I‚Äôm capable of.
Both women were ahead of their time, and exceptionally unique. Flynn ran for United States Senate in the early 1940s, and campaigned on a platform of state subsidized daycare and gender equality in the workplace ‚Äî things, which, more than 70 years later still aren‚Äôt a complete reality (if at all) in America.
There‚Äôs so much more I would love to say about this talk and the exhibition, if only I had more time and blog space. But suffice it to say, the talk definitely reignited my interest in learning more about radical women of the early 1900s. I will absolutely be doing more reading and research on the subjects. The more I learn, the more I realize I have so much to learn!
The other thing that consistently nagged at me throughout the night is the state of history education. As a kid, I would have loved to have learned more about this amazing, radical women in my grade school classes instead of having them all be consigned to a footnote, if we discussed them at all. They‚Äôre such inspiring examples, for young girls, of women who make change happen, and we need to get more of ‚Äúherstory.‚Äù
Hotbed is on display at the New York Historical Society until the end of Spring 2018, so feel free to check it out if you‚Äôre in the area ‚Äî in my opinion, it‚Äôs worth it!
Girl Museum Inc.