BRM focuses on voting and civil rights

Commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Brandywine River Museum of Art will present Votes for Women: A Visual History, an exhibition that rediscovers the visual language of the women’s suffrage movement. The long road to women’s suffrage, spanning the 19th and early-20th centuries, played out very differently from political movements today.

In the absence of televised and digital media, the suffragists spread their message through magazines, political cartoons, posters, plays, parades and even through fashion. Focusing on the decade prior to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the exhibition examines the compelling imagery of the suffrage movement, revealing how the “look” of women’s rights developed and deciphering the important visual strategies that propelled it forward.

Organized by the Brandywine and curated by Amanda C. Burdan, Votes for Women: A Visual History will feature more than 200 artifacts from the suffrage movement. Drawings, illustrations and posters from museums, historical societies and private collections will provide the visual language to decode the complex political messages conveyed by suffragists. Also included will be early film footage as well as historic photographs and banners from rallies and marches, including the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Procession in Washington D.C. Examples of the costumes, clothing, sashes and other emblems of women’s activism worn by suffragists will enliven the presentation.

“This exhibition picks up on the visual explosion of the suffrage movement in the early 20th century,” said Burdan. “With a younger generation joining the cause, there was a dramatic shift in the marketing of the movement and how the suffragists spread their message through the material culture of the time — making themselves and their campaign more visible. Votes for Women: A Visual History not only highlights the success of these efforts but also underscores how the imagery of the movement effectively penetrated American culture, creating a renewed momentum towards the finish line of ratification in 1920.”

While the 19th Amendment finally granted women the right to vote, ongoing voting struggles persisted for minority groups following its ratification. Presenting an inclusive historical narrative, Votes for Women: A Visual History recognizes the significant contributions of women of color and their community networks, which have been historically overlooked, giving the false impression that women of color were absent from the struggle for voting rights.

As a way to recognize women of color from the suffrage movement, the Brandywine has commissioned a diverse group of women artists to create a mural of illustrated portraits of some of the women whose role in winning voting rights has been historically minimized because of their race or ethnicity. The mural will include portraits of 14 local and national figures with accompanying biographies.

These “Hidden Figures of the Suffrage Movement” include Ethel Cuff Black, of Wilmington, Delaware, who was a founder of Delta Sigma Theta, the African American sorority that marched in the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C.; Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, a member of Turtle Mountain Chippewa Band, who worked as an attorney for the Office of Indian Affairs; and Sofia de Veyra, a Filipina working diligently for women’s rights in Washington D.C., before organizing a suffrage campaign in her native Philippines. The commissioned works will be completed in a variety of media and styles by artists Alexandra Beguez, Laura Freeman, Sarah Jung, Shadra Strickland and Sally Wern Comport.

Votes for Women: A Visual History will be on view at the Brandywine from Feb. 1–June 7, and will include a robust series of public programs that will explore and unlock the themes of the exhibition, including lectures, music and theatrical performances, gallery talks and more.

A related Speaker Series & Summit will focus on historic and contemporary women’s issues, featuring a variety of voices—including those of executive leaders, historians, entrepreneurs and community activists. These dynamic programs will provide a forum to engage directly with women’s history and shed light on the historic and contemporary battles for equality.

As the Votes for Women exhibition will further illuminate, the visual lessons of the suffrage movement provided a model for later activism, including the civil rights and social justice movements up to the present day, making this not just a centennial celebration, but a window into contemporary discourse.

Concurrent Exhibition: Witness to History: Selma Photography of Stephen Somerstein

Serving as a companion to the Votes for Women: A Visual History exhibition, Witness to History explores the historic 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama — a turning point in the civil rights movement that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. This exhibition presents 55 of the photographs taken by Stephen Somerstein—then a 24-year-old student—on March 25, 1965, accompanied by his commentary of the day’s events. With five cameras around his neck and only 15 rolls of film, Somerstein documented this pivotal moment in history, capturing photographs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent activists such as Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, John Lewis, and Joan Baez.

Somerstein also took photographs of his fellow demonstrators, as well as the anonymous bystanders who had gathered along the route. Witness to History: Selma Photography of Stephen Somerstein is guest curated by Farrah Spott and on view at the Brandywine River Museum of Art from February 1 to June 14.


About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.



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