Getting the vote: Forbes Library kicks off suffrage series this month with look at 19th Amendment

  • Cavlin Coolidge, the Republican candidate for U.S. vice president, casts his vote Nov. 2, 1920 in Northampton. His wife, Grace Coolidge, at right, also voted, following passage earlier that year of the 19th Amendment.  Photo courtesy Forbes Library

  • Independent scholar and writer Kathleen Banks Nutter will moderate a June 23 Zoom discussion, hosted by Forbes Library, on the history of women’s suffrage in the U.S. Photo courtesyKathleen Banks Nutter

  • Suffragists parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City in October 1917, holding placards with the signatures of more than 1 million New York women demanding the vote. The New York Times via Wikimedia Commons

  • Forbes Library will host four panel discussions on voting in the the next several months in a program funded through a Mass Humanities grant. Image courtesy Forbes Library

  • Lucy Stone, circa 1840-1860. The Brookfield, Mass. woman became a leading figure in the women’s suffrage movement in the 19th century. Library of Congress

Staff Writer
Published: 6/10/2020 6:31:17 AM

One hundred years ago, the Roaring Twenties began on a more repressive note. For starters, Prohibition was enacted in January. Meanwhile, the U.S. government cracked down on socialists and other “undesirable” political elements; lynchings and other attacks on African Americans began to multiply; and labor unions faced stepped-up opposition from the government, the courts and employers.

Amid this turmoil, there was a more positive development: The passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution finally gave women the right to vote.

To mark the 100th anniversary of that historic moment, Forbes Library is presenting a four-part discussion series that will look at selected elements of the history of voting in America — and what the future might bring in that process. The series has been funded through a grant from Mass Humanities.

“The Right To Vote: Past, Present, Future” begins June 23 at 7 p.m. with a forum that will look at the history of the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. in the 19th century and early 20th century. It was originally scheduled in late March at Forbes but will now take place via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other forums in the series will look at the impact of the Civil Rights movement on voting in the U.S. South, efforts in a number of states today to restrict voting, and the movement in some states to lower the voting age to 16.

Whether those other sessions will take place at the library or remotely is still not clear, said Kathleen Banks Nutter, an independent scholar, historian and writer who will moderate all four discussions. But Nutter, also a former teacher who received her PhD in history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said, “These are important conversations, and we want them to take place.”

Faith Kaufmann, head of Forbes’ Arts and Music Department, and the information services co-coordinator for the library, agrees: “We really want this series to move ahead, even if we can’t have it take place in person.”

‘It’s vital that we vote’

Joining Nutter for the June 23 session on women’s suffrage will be Stephen Kenney, the director of the Commonwealth Museum in Boston; Fredie Kay, founder of Suffrage100MA, a nonprofit group that is organizing various events to commemorate passage of the 19th Amendment; and Elizabeth Sharpe, co-executive director of Historic Northampton.

Nutter, who currently lives in Vermont, says the 100th anniversary of women winning the full right to vote — select states had enfranchised women before 1920, though in some cases not for national elections — is a good time to assess where the nation stands with voting today, especially given the efforts in some states to restrict it through voter roll purges, elimination of polling stations, and requirements for voter I.D.

Many of those efforts, critics say, have been aimed disproportionately at voters of color, tracing back to laws in the South earlier in the 20th century that barred African Americans from voting. And women’s suffrage itself has historically been linked to the African American story, Nutter says.

“As I used to say to my students, the women’s suffrage movement grew out of the abolitionist movement in the 19th century, and the modern women’s movement grew out of the civil rights movement,” said Nutter, who previously taught women’s history in western Massachusetts and on Long Island in New York state.

The June 23 discussion will cover the period 1848 to 1920, beginning with the first two women’s rights conventions, held in Seneca Falls and Rochester, N.Y. in summer 1848, which introduced some of the future women leaders of the suffrage movement, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Lucy Stone, from Brookfield, Massachusetts, became another prominent figure in both the women’s and abolitionist movements beginning in the 1850s.

Nutter says the suffrage movement faced opposition over the ensuing decades not just from men (and some women) but from internal disputes on how to achieve its goals. Passage in 1869 of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, for example, which gave African American men the vote, caused a split among suffragists, as some, like Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, opposed the measure, since women were still denied the vote.

Stone, though, supported the amendment, essentially considering it a step in the right direction for eventual enfranchisement of all Americans.

In addition, Nutter says the suffrage movement became ensnared, to some degree, with “a very nativist” debate in the country in the late 1800s/early 1900s, as some Americans opposed increased immigration to the country, particularly from Southern and Eastern Europe. “There were arguments along the lines of ‘You’re allowing immigrants to vote, you’re allowing blacks to vote, but not us,’” she said.

Even when women did get the vote in 1920, many Americans were still excluded — Native Americans, Chinese Americans, and African American women in the South. “I think now more than ever, it’s vital that we vote and that we consider the history of how voting has taken place here,” said Nutter.

The June 23 discussion will last about an hour, followed by a Q&A session in which Zoom viewers can send in digital questions to the panelists. You can register for the discussion here or by visiting and clicking on the link for virtual events.

One additional session in “The Right To Vote” series, on voting restrictions, will take place Sept. 21, while the programs on the civil rights movement and youth voting are still to be rescheduled but are expected to take place over the next five months.

Kaufman says Forbes held some 1,450 programs for the public last year, drawing nearly 19,500 attendees. Trying to replace that with online programs “has been a real challenge,” she noted, though programs on books, art, yoga and other activities have been popular. The library is also poised to begin curbside delivery of books while it assesses a longer-range plan for reopening, she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at
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