Over the threshold into Kenan House, greetings come immediately from Columbia and Alice Paul.
Columbia, symbol of America, is looking toward Miss Paul in a jail cell.
And Paul is wearing the proof of her crime proudly. The sash across her chest demands: Votes For Women.
Outside her cell, Paul's name is posted on a list with 167 others, all daughters of Columbia who were imprisoned and tortured for protesting.
Welcome to The Art of Suffrage, a multimedia depiction of the struggle, sacrifice and success of Paul and like-minded “radicals” in securing for all American women the right to vote.
The exhibition, designed by Mary Brennan Taylor and Ellen Martin through the Lockport Public Arts Council, coincides with the 100th year since ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Spread throughout Kenan House, The Art of Suffrage is equal parts memorabilia show and hidden-history lesson relayed through photographs and brief biographies, music, video and props.
The memorabilia — post cards, magazine covers, illustrations, sheet music, buttons and other ephemera, even glass ware — belongs to Brennan Taylor, who has been collecting authentic campaign pieces from the women’s suffrage movement for the past 40 years.
Together, the mementos and interpretive displays tell the story of women’s suffrage in a manner that U.S. history textbook writers can’t or won’t, even now.
“This is going to be the things you never learned in school, things that were never addressed, not even in college,” Brennan Taylor promises.
• • •
As a show title, “The Art of Suffrage” can be taken literally. Magazine covers, political cartoons, buttons, post cards, Valentines, music: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these were the means through which campaigners for and against women’s suffrage competed for hearts and minds across the country.
Brennan Taylor, a longtime executive of the YWCA of the Niagara Frontier, has collected mementos from both sides. Loathsome though the messages often are on the anti pieces — depicting suffragists as mannish, grotesque, unstable — they’re just as valuable as the pro pieces for what they convey about the uphill nature of the suffragists’ fight.
“I’m a bit of a historian by nature and I appreciate the story told by these pieces,” Brennan Taylor said. “Collecting kind of keeps it alive for me, how difficult it was to be a well-funded machine (at the time). It makes me just so grateful to them. I marvel at their ingenuity, how they were able to make something out of nothing.”
The U.S. campaign for women’s suffrage got underway in 1848 and then waned in the run-up to the Civil War. Early suffragists were abolitionists as well, and seeing slavery ended was their higher priority. Post-war, the movement was divided on the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. Some objected because suffrage wasn’t extended to women as well, while the old abolitionists feared including women would cause the amendment to fail. Instead, the movement turned to winning women’s right to vote state by state.
Forty years on, along came suffragist Alice Paul who, according to Brennan Taylor, was unimpressed with the “plodding old guard” and intent on taking their fight back to the national level. Paul, a New Jersey native, had studied sociology and economics in England and was drawn to that country's militant pro-suffrage Women’s Social and Political Union. When she returned home in 1910, she brought the union’s bold organizing strategies with her.
Paul was the behind-the-scenes general of the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington. Timed to coincide with President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, the heavily symbol-laden parade commanded the nation’s attention. It was led by attorney and activist Inez Milholland, dressed in white, riding a white horse and evoking the spirit of Joan of Arc. From the steps of the U.S. Treasury building, Columbia (actress Hedwiga Reicher) summoned Liberty, Charity, Justice, Hope and Peace to observe as the parade units, led by pioneering career women and social justice advocates from across the country, passed by.
Without the benefit of radio or television, internet or Facebook, Paul “mobilized eight thousand women in about three months,” Brennan Taylor said. “They went past the White House, where there were about 500,000 spectators, some of whom reacted viscerally … ripping away banners and attacking women physically. That’s how (suffrage) got to Page One.”
The suffrage old guard objected to Paul's tactics, so she cut ties with them and founded the National Woman’s Party. In 1917, the new guard began dispatching Silent Sentinels and picketers to the White House on a regular basis, to goad President Wilson into supporting a federal amendment, and did not relent upon the United States’ entry into the Great War. In a matter of months, more than 500 protesters ended up under arrest, usually on a flimsy pretext — “obstructing traffic” — and more than a quarter of them were imprisoned. Paul was among them and she kept up her protest by going on a hunger strike, which was met by prison officials moving her to the jailhouse psychiatric ward and subjecting her to force-feeding.
The accounts of abuses heaped on many a suffragette by her jailer did not go over well with the general public, or image-conscious politicians. By early 1918, President Wilson was persuaded to announce what would be the first, but not final, vote on a women’s suffrage bill.
While history credits the suffrage old guard for securing Wilson’s backing of the 19th Amendment, Brennan Taylor believes the credit really belongs to Paul.
“She was singularly focused and gave everything she had from the time she got involved. She had a really extraordinary ability to communicate her message,” Brennan Taylor said. “If not for her in-your-face advocacy, we’d still be waiting. She really was the one who turned the tide.”
• • •
The Art of Suffrage is installed throughout the first and second floors of Kenan House; and within, sections showcase different facets of the movement. Anti-suffrage ephemera has its own space. Local and regional connections to the national movement are forged. The display in Mr. Kenan’s bedroom pays homage to least known and least credited suffragists: women of color and women who did not fit the gender norm of the day.
Near the foyer, Mrs. Kenan’s sitting room is devoted to Alice Paul and shines light on the (still not ratified) Equal Rights Amendment, the original wording of which Paul co-wrote with Crystal Eastman and had delivered to Congress in 1923. There’s not much art or ephemera here, but among the documents on display are some of Brennan Taylor’s most treasured possessions: correspondence between her and Paul, traded in the last few years of Paul’s life when Mary Brennan, Future Teachers of America chapter president, homecoming chair and multi-sport athlete at Lockport Senior High School, was up to her ears advocating ERA’s passage to any and every audience she could get.
Amid all the memorabilia, Ellen Martin consciously tucked a few signs of 2020 into the exhibit. The door to Miss Paul’s jail cell is unlocked and anyone can walk in and stand with her. Life-size cutouts and satin ribbons are ready props for composing I-was-there selfies. Voter registration forms are there for the taking and sample ballots are on show for the benefit of the unacquainted. These interactive elements invite show-goers to take the suffragists’ successes and sacrifices personally.
The Art of Suffrage is designed “to incite an intense reaction to a very difficult time in our history,” Brennan Taylor said. “That women take advantage of their right to vote (after touring the exhibit) would be the best of both worlds.”
• • •
The Art of Suffrage opens today at Kenan House, 433 Locust St., with a reception from 2 to 5 p.m. and continues through March 29. Admission is free.
In conjunction, these live events have been organized:
— A talk by Mary Walton, author of A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot, at 7 p.m. Feb. 28 at Taylor Theater. Admission is free.
— A talk by Tina Cassidy, author of Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait?, at 4 p.m. March 7 at Taylor Theater. Admission is free.
— Tea and Tour, a guided tour of the exhibit and a talk by Mary Brennan Taylor. Since the Feb. 23 Tea and Tour sold out earlier this week, the Kenan Center added a second Tea, from 1 to 3 p.m. Feb. 22. Tickets are $25; call 433-2617 to reserve spots.
— Susan B. Anthony Alive: A One Woman’s Show, by historical actress Christina Rausa, at Taylor Theater, 7:30 p.m. March 21. For tickets ($10-$20) go to kenancenter.ticketleap.com.
The Art of Suffrage is sponsored by the Kenan Center, the Grigg-Lewis Foundation, Humanities New York, Arts Services Initiative, Niagara Heritage Trail, Lockport Public Arts Council and the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, which will host a portion of the exhibit later this year.