Photo caption: Emma Mabie is part of faculty-student team that created an exhibit to honor area women who fought for women’s voting rights.
One hundred years after women won the right to vote, many experts are predicting that it will be female voters who will determine the outcome of the closely watched 2020 presidential election.
A team of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students and librarians are making sure that the Chippewa Valley women who fought for their voting rights all those years ago — making it possible for millions of women to vote today — are recognized as the U.S. celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
“The passage of the 19th Amendment, establishing the constitutional right of women to vote, had a profound impact on our nation as a whole and within our communities,” says Greg Kocken, head of special collections and archives in McIntyre Library. “This achievement was a hard-won victory for generations of suffragettes and an important step toward equal voting rights for all.”
In celebration of the centennial, undergraduate student curators and librarians created an online exhibit that explores the local story of the suffrage movement and passage of the 19th Amendment.
As many Americans prepare to cast their votes in the 2020 election, Kocken says his research team is inviting people to take a moment to learn some of the stories of Chippewa Valley women who fought for — and against — women’s suffrage in the early 20th century.
The virtual exhibit, he says, will help people reflect on the significance of the 19th Amendment for women then and now.
“The exhibit tells the story of the Chippewa Valley during the suffrage movement through the eyes of the community during that time,” says Emma Mabie, a senior from Fall Creek who was a student curator on the project. “It allows the public to see people, documents, letters and newspaper articles that led to where we are today as a community.”
Being part of the project was a powerful experience, says Mabie, who voted for the first time in the 2016 presidential election.
“While doing my research, I read the stories of women who fought for the right to vote,” Mabie says. “I read of the opposition movements that tried everything in their power to stop women from having a voice. To be able to use my voice in politics means a lot, and I don't want to take that for granted, especially after researching all the hardships of women before me.
“I will always vote, and I will always be grateful that I have that right thanks to the determination of those before me.”
The “Vote: The 19th Amendment and the Chippewa Valley” exhibit brings together documents and photos to tell the stories of Chippewa Valley women and the local activities tied to the suffrage movement, says Liliana LaValle, a digital learning and instruction librarian in McIntyre Library.
The exhibit focuses on people and moments in the Chippewa Valley that help illustrate the local history of the women’s suffrage era, highlighting women’s suffrage organizations, anti-suffrage sentiments, the Wisconsin 1912 referendum, women in World War I and the winning of the vote, LaValle says.
As she votes for the first time in the November election, Anna Wendorff, also a student curator for the exhibit, says she will be thinking about the women whose stories she discovered through her research.
“I’ll imagine the women before me participating in voting for the first time,” says Wendorff, a sophomore from Stillwater, Minnesota. “I’ll wonder what excitement they felt or what fears they had about their new-found rights. I’ll silently thank the well-known figures as well as those who remain faceless or nameless for their efforts.
“I’ll see myself as carrying on their tradition into the 21st century knowing that we must not become comfortable with what we already have. We must continue to question the status of women in society, much like the many suffragettes did 100 years ago.”
As a student curator, Mabie studied newspaper databases and local collections housed in the archives. She also helped in the writing process, crafting numerous pages and subpages for the exhibit.
“The best parts for me were discovering a side of the Chippewa Valley that I had not known,” says Mabie, who will graduate in December with a degree in integrated strategic communications with an emphasis in public relations and minors in history and political science. “Working in the archives for four years as a student assistant, I thought I had a firm understanding of its history. But this project allowed me to dig deeper and expand my knowledge on a place that means so much to me.”
Among the things she learned and hopes to share with others through the exhibit is that while the passage of the 19th Amendment was an important event in U.S. history, it was not necessarily a victory for all women, Wendorff says.
“We often celebrate it as a universal victory when that is very distant from the generally accepted truth,” Wendorff says. “Many deserving suffragettes from marginalized communities were often lost in the ongoing toil for rights. Yes, we should still celebrate the women who showed determination for over seven decades. There must be reverence for this triumph, but with an awareness that some of those who contributed have been unduly concealed by history.”
One of the challenges of curating the exhibit was finding ways to help visitors see how the people and stories from 100 years ago are relevant now, Mabie says.
“I hope that when people visit the exhibit, they gain more knowledge of the community, but are able to make connections to today’s world,” Mabie says. “I hope they see the continuity throughout the history in the Chippewa Valley.”
Wendorff says the exhibit deliberately uses visuals to tell many of the stories. The artifacts help visitors consider the lives of women in the Chippewa Valley during that period, she says, noting that there are subsites within the exhibit that provide additional information and resources for those who want to dig deeper into the stories.
There were thousands of pieces of information and artifacts to review as they built the exhibit, says Wendorff, a communication studies major with a minor in rhetoric of science, technology and culture and a certificate in analytical reasoning.
“Each object is only included in the exhibit because of many hours of reading and research,” Wendorff says. “Any issues with locating the correct materials for the exhibit were worth it for the completed project.”
The process was challenging but also fascinating, says Wendorff, adding that she thinks every Blugold should have at least one research experience during their undergraduate years.
“I’ve been an assistant on three research projects now and each one has taught me how to effectively produce acceptable materials, how to have confidence with personal mental capacity and questioning capabilities, and also how to intently analyze historical subject matter beyond what is commonly conveyed,” Wendorff says.
Mabie says she also gained a lot from the experience.
“Working on this exhibit allowed me to think outside the box, problem solve and gain better communication skills,” Mabie says. “I gained confidence I didn’t know I needed.”
The exhibit was completed during the summer with funding from the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.