The ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, granting women suffrage, was clearly a milestone in U.S. legal history. Many historians, however, would argue that transformative social change is the result of a continuous struggle rather than a single event.
Enter the Radcliffe Institute’s “Long 19th Amendment Project,” which is playing a leading role nationally in reframing our understanding of the history of the suffrage centennial and its meaning, with support from the Mellon Foundation. This is fitting, because it was alumna and suffragist Maud Wood Park’s donation of her papers that formed the core of what would one day become Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library.
The project invites us to look beyond the accepted histories of the suffrage movement — beginning with the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, which is seen as the genesis of the movement even though women’s activism had actually begun much earlier.
It also looks beyond celebrations of the elite white “Founding Mothers” Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and toward the African American, Latina, and Indigenous women who would not be fully franchised for decades to come. At the heart of these efforts is the Long 19th Amendment Project Portal, an open-access digital gateway to archival collections, teaching materials, and scholarship that help to tell a more complex and inclusive story about gender and voting rights in America.
In two interviews, Radcliffe Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, who is also the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School and a professor of history, and Jane Kamensky, Pforzheimer Foundation Director at the Schlesinger and Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History, shed light on some of the historical issues framing the project.
Tomiko Brown-Nagin and Jane Kamensky
HLS: Let’s start with the Seneca Falls convention in 1848. The standard narrative places that as the start of the women’s suffrage movement, yet some historians would argue that it was more a movement for social and property rights, and that suffrage was not high on the agenda.
Kamensky: The cutting edge of work around suffrage is that Seneca Falls is a false beginning. It’s a landmark that we look to, which places Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a subset of the women’s rights movement [at the fore], with suffrage as their main and exclusive goal. And that leaves out the activism that happens decades earlier in African American communities, in churches, and even women who were voting. We’re learning a lot more about women in New Jersey and New England states who were voting under the exceptions that state constitutions allowed before 1807. So part of the commitment of Schlesinger Library’s Long 19th Amendment Project is that the story is more complicated and begins earlier.