- Hidden Histories and the History of Ambivalence
As we commemorate the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, it is important to remind ourselves of our still woefully incomplete understanding of the history of female empowerment. The predilections of historiography have emphasized public displays of the fight for women’s rights and documentary evidence of these efforts. Lost to the historical record are the undocumented performances, social gatherings, and private conversations that culminated in women’s attainment of the right to vote.
When my students and I started researching the Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore (WLCB) (1890– 1941), we were surprised to discover that the club minutes hardly ever referred to suffrage. There was not a single mention of the 1906 National American Woman Suffrage Association convention, which was under way in Baltimore as the WLCB held its 13 February meeting. Did the women simply not care about the vote? Without documentary evidence, my students assumed that silence meant complicity with the patriarchal status quo.
As we looked beyond the club’s organizational documents, however, we found that members in fact espoused a wide range of views regarding suffrage. The club secretary, Lydia Crane, simply chose not to write about them. Some, like Margaret Sutton Briscoe, expressed her anti views in Harper’s Bazaar. A few, like early club officer Elizabeth King (later Ellicott), were unapologetic suffragists. But most expressed finely gauged ambivalence, probably reflecting the feelings of many of their peers. “Must I be a pro or anti?” asked club member Louise Malloy in her humor column, written under the pseudonym Josh Wink, in the Baltimore American newspaper in 1911. Malloy, an independent woman and devout Catholic, repeatedly commented on women’s rights and suffrage in her humor column, but one is never quite sure whether she is “winking” through a man’s eyes or expressing her own views. To completely understand the history of American suffrage, perhaps it is now time to examine more closely these expressions of ambivalence rather than simply relegating those who did not act to the ranks of the complicit.
On another front, the history of Black women’s activism in Baltimore has also remained hidden. Only this year, Augusta T. Chissell, Margaret Gregory Hawkins, and Estelle Young, who organized Black suffragists in Baltimore (and who were explicitly excluded from the white-only organizations led by [End Page 303] Elizabeth King Ellicott and other white suffragists), were publicly recognized with historical markers in front of their former homes. While knowledge of their efforts lived in the memories of descendants, neighbors, and church communities, they had been lost to—or intentionally excluded from—the historical record. Ironically, their activities were documented in the privately held records of a Black women’s club, the Dubois Circle, founded in 1906, which are now being digitized (Pitts). Kismet.