- The Nineteenth Amendment Centennial and the Politics of Memorialization: Literary Engagements in Public Storytelling
In honor of the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification, the first statue to represent female historical figures was unveiled in New York’s Central Park on 26 August 2020.1 This commemorative event took place against the backdrop of more than a year of heated debate over the monument’s design. Commissioned by the nonprofit organization Monumental Women, the first iteration of the statue represented Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony working together over a scroll that unfurled to reveal the names of women’s rights activists of the next century, but the design underwent a major overhaul after an outcry over its focus on these two figures (see fig. 1). While Stanton and Anthony were indeed prominent leaders of the movement for decades and devoted most of their lives to the suffrage cause, their vacillating vision of the franchise frequently leaned toward racial, national, and educational hierarchies that privileged upper-middle-class whites born in the United States; they employed racist rhetoric and white supremacism to advance their activism; and their framing of the narrative of American women’s suffrage history (as well as their prominence within the women’s movement) has obscured the leadership and contributions of many others, especially Black women. Would the monument cover over this troubling past in an effort to glorify these women as suffrage “pioneers”?2
The revised design grapples with this critique by adding Sojourner Truth to the scene, this time capturing the activists at a table in conversation, the scroll having been disallowed by the New York City Public Design Commission (see [End Page 287] fig. 2).3 As I have argued elsewhere, the deployment of Truth as the go-to figure for signaling a commitment to Black feminism is so common that it should be understood as a central trope of suffrage representation; this technique, however, rarely addresses the problems at the core of the movement, and the redesign of the statue is no exception.4 On the one hand, the addition of Truth at least hints at the importance of Black women’s contributions to suffrage activism and gestures toward the dynamic and discursive nature of the movement. On the other hand, the redesign remains stubbornly centered on white women, covers over significant differences in power among the figures depicted, and does nothing to address the racism of white suffragists. The revision of the statue replicates, rather than resolves, the problem that Stanton and Anthony represent.
For those of us interested in suffrage literature, the debate over the Central Park statue traces familiar contours. Who counts as significant enough for recovery, and how do we represent the breadth of the movement in ways that do not simply reproduce dominant narratives but instead actively restructure scholarly frameworks? How do we handle figures who employed exclusionary or racist rhetoric and political strategies? What kinds of stories do we, as critics, tell when we recover and recuperate these figures and their work? How ought we to reconceive our research methodologies, definition of sources, and interpretation of evidence so as to understand suffrage history—and its actors and texts—more inclusively and accurately? But while journalists, activists, and historians participated in the debate over the suffrage monument across a variety of public forums, literary scholars were notably absent from the conversation.
These questions, and that absence, were the inspiration for a roundtable on the suffrage centennial at the 2020 Modern Language Association conference. Over the past fifty years, scholarly and popular narratives about the movement, traditionally the terrain of historians and activists, have tended toward either uncritical genuflection that exalts suffrage figures, on the one hand, or corrective critiques that highlight their flaws, on the other. As these narratives have come to dominate both academic and public understandings of suffrage history, literary critics have paid relatively little attention to the movement. Dogged by questions of didacticism, debates over politics and aesthetics, and the difficulty of recovering ephemeral forms of print culture, suffrage literature has largely been ignored as a productive object of literary criticism. But as the following papers demonstrate, the movement...