Studying the Women’s Suffrage Movement Today: A Case Study of Photographs in the Sophia Smith Collection

Female suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage began writing the history of their women’s rights movement fifty years after the introduction of photography. Their six- volume testament to the campaign, Woman Suffrage History includes minutes from their meetings, both national and local, speeches in front of Congress, and speeches made before the public. However, these volumes include no pictures to document the push for female suffrage. Arguably, modern historians continue to make a similar omission and disregard the power of visual materials to tell this history, or include the same select number of images over and over as a glossy insert in the middle of their analysis. It is my contention that the detail and attention that archivists provide and give to photographs in the repository directly corresponds to the manner in which historians include or omit such visual materials from their writings. By examining the finding aid, and physical arrangement of the photographs in the Suffrage Collection at the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, I will attempt to extrapolate a connection between those findings and the use of visual materials in Ellen Carol DuBois’s work Woman Suffrage & Women’s Rights in which she analyzes the American women’s suffrage movement.
In the first section of my paper, I will provide a brief overview of the final push and ultimate victory of women’s suffrage that took place from 1910-1920. In the next section, I will analyze the photographs in the Suffrage Collection. Descriptive practice such as titles, dates, the identification of persons and photographers offers the user very little information and therefore, limits the application of these materials. Finally, I will use the archival literature that discusses both photographic description and general best practice to better understand the gap that exists between rich photographs and their treatment in DuBois’s suffrage history.

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