Project Showcase: The U.S. Senate and Women’s Fight for the Vote
18 July 2019 – Kate Scott
Recently, the U.S. Senate Historical Office launched an online exhibit commemorating the centennial of the Senate’s passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. “The U.S. Senate and Women’s Fight for the Vote” joins a number of initiatives, commemorative activities, and celebrations focused on the national women’s suffrage centennial that are occurring across the United States. These projects document and interpret key events that led to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in August 1920, with many of them highlighting the efforts of generations of grassroots activists. The Senate exhibit adds another layer to these fascinating and complex stories, exploring the interplay between lawmakers and suffragists over a 40-year period. Understanding both elite and grassroots perspectives will help teachers, scholars, and the general public to appreciate fully the extraordinary effort required to pass this amendment through Congress.
In 1878, California senator Aaron Sargent was the first member of Congress to propose a formal constitutional amendment specifically to extend voting rights to women. The Senate never voted on Sargent’s proposal, but the idea—and the suffragists who supported it—persisted. To illustrate this decades-long story, Senate historians researched, digitized, and interpreted dozens of petitions, political cartoons, constituent letters, and photos. The project team used these materials, along with secondary sources, to develop contextual essays and a curated “key moments” timeline.
The exhibit documents more than four decades of proposals, rejections, protests, lobbying, and skilled political maneuvering to get the suffrage amendment through the Senate and on the road to ratification. Highlighting Senate speeches from the pages of the Congressional Record and constituent correspondence found in the papers of senators and suffragists, the exhibit examines the ways in which senators—both proponents and opponents of women’s suffrage—publicly and privately articulated their positions.
“The U.S. Senate and Women’s Fight for the Vote” complements public programs being offered by the Senate Historical Office in 2019 and 2020, including a series of lunchtime talks and special Capitol tours designed to interpret the Senate’s 41-year road to passing the Nineteenth Amendment by highlighting historic spaces significant to this effort. In 2020, the Senate Historical Office will introduce a second digital exhibit documenting women’s evolving role in the Senate since 1789. Tentatively titled “Women of the Senate,” this exhibit will feature a short documentary and selected oral histories that explore the varied experiences of women senators and their top female staff.
These recent projects offer a few examples of the ways in which the Senate Historical Office is re-examining and re-interpreting the history of the institution to tell more complex and inclusive stories about the people who have shaped it.
~ Kate Scott is Associate Historian for the U.S. Senate Historical Office. She is a member of the Committee for Government History, which commissioned this post.