A Review of Three New Washington D.C. Exhibits on the Women’s Suffrage Movement

women's Sufferage

Are you looking for one more quick get-away this summer?  Why not take a women’s suffrage-themed trip to Washington D.C.?

Over at The New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler reviews exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery, Library of Congress, and National Archives.  These exhibits, Schuessler argues, reveal the complexity of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States.

Here is a taste of her piece:

Together, these shows — all curated by women — make up one of the richest explorations of women’s history yet assembled in the capital, or anywhere else. But they also offer a lesson in the messiness, complexities and compromises involved in any movement for social change — and the fraught politics of historical memory itself.

For years, the drive for women’s suffrage was presented mainly as the story of middle-class white women and iconic national leaders like Anthony and Stanton. That story began with the Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York in 1848 and ended with the triumphant adoption of the amendment on Aug. 26, 1920, which resulted in the single largest extension of democratic voting rights in American history.

But in recent decades scholars have taken a less top-down view, emphasizing the movement’s multiple starting points and patchwork progress through hundreds of state and local campaigns. They have also excavated the role of African-American women, who were largely excluded from the major, white-led suffrage organizations and marginalized in the early histories of the movement, if they were mentioned at all.

Even before the centennial year began, there have been tensions over who and what to celebrate — or even how to sum up the amendment’s significance.

Read the entire piece here.

The Pietist Schoolman Urges His Representative to Fund the National Archives


Chris Gehrz, who loyal readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know as “The Pietist Schoolman,” has inspired me to write a similar letter to my representative.

Gehrz builds off of T.J. Stiles’s recent piece on budget cuts to the National Archives.  His post is titled “Don’t Balance Budgets on the Back of History.”

And here is his letter to Representative Betty McCollom (D-Minnesota):

Dear Rep. McCollum,

I’ve been your constituent for sixteen years — as a resident of St. Paul and now Roseville, and as a history professor at Bethel University in Arden Hills. Whether I’ve agreed or disagreed with you on specific points of policy, I’ve always appreciated your service and admired the spirit in which you serve. Until this month, I’ve never felt compelled to write you a letter. But as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, you are in an excellent position to help address a critical problem: the continuing decline in fundingfor the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

As Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer (and Minnesota native) T.J. Stiles pointed out last week in The Washington Post, Congress used to allocate nearly half a billion dollars annually to NARA. But in 2012, NARA’s budget fell from $475 million to $420 million. By 2019 the operational budget was down to $373 million, and President Trump has proposed just $345.6 million in operating expenses for 2020.

That’s simply insufficient to fund the essential work of a significant federal agency whose workload is only increasing. Not only does NARA need to continue to maintain its two central facilities in the DC area, plus presidential libraries, records centers, and regional facilities, but it is already far behind in an effort to digitize its paper holdings. While the employees of NARA are dedicated professionals, their numbers are dwindling, and those that remain are increasingly unsure of their ability to fulfill their mission.

“America is losing its memory,” wrote Stiles. “More than a resource for historians or museum of founding documents, NARA stands at the heart of American democracy… If Congress doesn’t save it, we all will suffer.”

I know such claims can sound like hyperbole. And there are many other worthy causes in every budget fight that have more immediate impact on the lives of people. But I want to underscore the very real danger involved in allowing the National Archives to suffer continuing underfunding.

Why are the National Archives important? I’ve used its resources and services in multiple ways:

• I could not have written my doctoral dissertation without the archives and archivists at the main archives building in College Park, Maryland, and I’ve used the NARA-administered Truman and Eisenhower presidential libraries for other research.

• Like history professors at other Minnesota colleges and universities — including your alma mater and Stiles’ — I depend on NARA-digitized materials for student reading and research in courses on subjects like World War II and the Cold War. So too do my social studies education students, who will use NARA-curated sources in teaching history, government, economics, and civics courses at middle and high schools in our district and state.

• But I also use the National Archives as most other citizens do. I’ve delved into NARA’s genealogical records to better understand the story of my own family, and I’ll bring the next generation of that family — my two children — to the National Archives building in Washington, so that they can see firsthand the founding documents of our democracy.

By all of these activities, we Americans engage in the vitally important work of understanding, interpreting, and learning from our collective past. These historical practices may be the most important source of our national identity, for we cannot know who we are if we don’t understand who we have been.

But also, who we are becoming. For when we study the past, Americans both see more clearly the causes of our nation’s shortcomings and are inspired to address those challenges, as we recognize the historic accomplishments of the women and men who preceded us.

We can’t take any of that for granted. As a historian, I know all too well that the past is constantly disappearing. Memories fade; evidence erodes. And even when documents and artifacts are preserved, they need to be made available to the public and interpreted for the public.

Such preservation, access, and interpretation are impossible absent a well-funded national archives agency.

So I was encouraged to see that your committee has already voted to increase or keep stable funding for museum and library services and a history/civics grants program. In the same spirit, I hope that you and other representatives will restore NARA funding to a more appropriate level of $410 million.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for your years of public service.

Dr. Christopher Gehrz

Like Chris, I encourage you to write a similar letter.

T.J. Stiles: “America is losing its memory”


Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian T.J. Stiles has a great piece at The Washington Post on reduced funding for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  This is a must read.

A taste:

Every American can go to the National Archives and get direct access to our past and present. And everyone suffers from the failure to pay what it costs to maintain it. In fiscal 2010, Congress granted NARA $475 million , for example. The next year, it cut the appropriation to $420 million. The appropriation for 2018 was $403.2 million. For 2020, the Trump administration is asking for $358 million. Such repeated, harsh reductions are even worse when adjusted for inflation.

Even as appropriations decline, the workload increases. Already NARA facilities are near full capacity for record storage, holding some 4.5 million cubic feet. Yet more files arrive annually, with as much as 2.5 million cubic feet of “permanently valuable, historical records” expected over the next 14 years.

Selecting and preserving these records demand countless hours of expert labor. Some records need special care; all must be identified and catalogued; security and privacy concerns require diligent attention. On top of that, NARA has been asked to digitize those existing paper records. In 2018, it lagged nearly 12 million pages behind its goal of making 65 million available online — in itself a small fraction of its total holdings.

The fiscal constriction shows at the scores of facilities where the public accesses federal records. NARA maintains more than a dozen presidential libraries, 13 federal records centers, 11 regional facilities and two personnel records centers, not to mention two central locations in College Park and Washington. Recent years have seen visitor hours restricted, new fees levied and a shrinking workforce.

That staff consists of dedicated professionals. I’ve worked with many of them personally, from rank-and-file archivists to the agency’s nonpartisan leadership, and I have great confidence in them. (I spoke to no one at NARA about this essay.) But only so much can be accomplished with a shrinking budget. In 2017, an employee survey found 73 percent agreed that “my agency is successful at accomplishing its mission.” In 2018, that figure declined to 66 percent, an alarming level for such a critical body.

We owe it to ourselves to substantially increase funding for the keepers of our national memory. No financial interest or large popular pressure group lobbies on NARA’s behalf. Its constituency is all of us — and every American to come. If we lose touch with who we have been, what we have endured and how we have argued, the United States will stand for nothing at all.

Read the entire piece here.

“Amending America” Exhibit Comes to Lancaster, Pennsylvania


You can see the National Archive’s exhibit “Amending America: The Bill of Rights” at LancasterHistory.org in Lancaster, PA.  Learn more from Jennifer Kopf‘s piece at Lancaster Online.  Here is a taste:

Two years ago, on the 225th anniversary of that Bill of Rights, the National Archives curated an exhibit that explores how those first 10 amendments were composed. “Amending America: The Bill of Rights” then went on a cross-country tour of America that arrives in Lancaster later this week.

When “Amending America” opens at LancasterHistory.org Saturday, it will be the 11th stop on a tour that’s taken the exhibit to the presidential libraries of Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon, the home of Founding Father George Mason, a museum in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, and, most recently, to the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore.

Using reproduction documents and petitions, political cartoons and interactive stations, the exhibit also will have a feature none of the other stops on the tour has had.

Local curators have assembled a complementary exhibit on President Jame


s Buchanan and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Both immensely powerful mid-19th-century politicians and both Lancastrians, Stevens and Buchanan held radically different ideas about what powers were permitted and prohibited by the Constitution.

Robin Sarratt, vice president of LancasterHistory.org, says the timing of the exhibit’s arrival here “is fortuitous.”

“Amending America,” Sarratt says, encourages the process of asking questions, of thinking about what citizenship means, about what the words in the Constitution and Bill of Rights meant in that era — and what they mean today.”

Read the entire article here.

Thank You Tom Hanks!



Several readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home sent me this piece yesterday.

On Saturday night, Tom Hanks was honored by the National Archives with a “Record of Achievement Award” for his work in promoting American history through the use of original documents found in the Archives.

Here is a taste of CNN’s Jennifer Hansler’s article on the event:

Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks on Saturday night urged the importance of understanding and learning from history, especially for those troubled by the current state of affairs.

“People are upset about what’s going on today. They’re furious, they’re frustrated, they’re worked up,” Hanks said. “If you’re concerned about what’s going on today, read history and figure out what to do because it’s all right there.”

Read the rest here.

Progress Report on the Obama Presidential Center


Over at Process, the blog of the Organization of American Historians, David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, provides us with an update on Barack Obama’s presidential “library.”

Here is a taste:

Will there be an Obama Presidential Library like the other 13 presidential libraries administered by the National Archives?

Not in the traditional sense of how presidential libraries are thought of today. The current plan is for the National Archives and the Obama Foundation to partner on an unprecedented effort to digitize all of the unclassified Obama White House paper records to provide the widest access possible for scholars and the public.

Why did President Obama and the Obama Foundation decide not to include a presidential library as part of the Obama Presidential Center?

I am not privy to the reasons that went into this decision and would refer you to the Obama Foundation. I believe they weighed a number of factors including space constraints on the site, architectural considerations, and the cost of the building and the 60-percent endowment that is required by Congress. Moreover, as more records are born-digital, this transition is a natural one. In fact, the majority of the records of the 44th President came to NARA in digital form, and it is appropriate for his presidency to be reflected as the first complete digital presidential library in our nation’s history.

That sounds exciting. How will it work?

We are in the process of working out the details with the Obama Foundation, who have committed to raising the funds to support a NARA-led effort to digitize these materials. We are currently working with the Obama Foundation to gather information necessary to develop a project plan and schedule for this initiative.

Read the entire post here.  We a post we did on this subject back in May 2017.