Ohio Women Vote: 100 Years of Change – How It Evolved

Ohio Women Vote: 100 Years of Change – How It Evolved

In 1920, the United States passed the 19th Amendment, granting many women the right to vote for the first time. As part of our commemoration of this Suffrage Centennial, the Ohio History Connection has created an exhibit that will travel the state in 2020 to tell the story of Ohio women’s activism. This post about the exhibit process is written by Lead Curator, Lisa Wood. Learn more here.

The evolution of the exhibit Ohio Women Vote: 100 Years of Change was not the most typical exhibit development process.  Many museum exhibits begin with artwork, objects or photographs that curators and designers want to feature.  The exhibits then evolve to tell larger stories about the selected objects.  With Ohio Women Vote: 100 Years of Change, women’s writing – their essays, letters, speeches and interviews – became the featured ‘objects’ in the exhibit.  How did we identify the women to be included and find the quotations that speak to their convictions?

The exhibit development process began with what I called the “Working Name Matrix” of notable Ohio women.  Essentially, this is a multi-page spreadsheet.  Curators asked staff across the Ohio History Connection who are participating in suffrage and women’s history programming to suggest women with a connection to Ohio that they believe are significant.  With a group of staff we reviewed the ‘Working Name Matrix’ to ensure that women from all five geographic regions of Ohio and diverse social backgrounds were present. We also checked the ‘Matrix’ to be sure that there were suffragists and activists from 1848, the year of the first, organized women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, to the present.  We compiled a very long list!

We sought guidance to narrow the list and focus the main ideas of the exhibit through a process called theme testing.  Curators worked with our Visitor Studies department to draft a list of possible exhibit themes.  We then went to another museum and took a survey of visitors to gather data about which themes resonated most.  Strong preferences among visitors surveyed for particular themes quickly emerged.  The top choice of many survey participants was ‘Identity,’ what it means to be a women, a voter and a citizen. The second choice was ‘In Their Own Voices,’ hearing the story of the suffrage movement and women’s activism in the first person.

While the curators were always striving to incorporate a diverse group of women into the exhibit, theme testing reinforced that it was vitally important for visitors to see people like themselves.  The popularity of the theme ‘In Their Own Voices’ made us realize that we needed to limit use of the curatorial voice in the exhibit text and prioritize quotes that share women’s life experiences and ideas in their own words.  Fortunately, finding writing or speeches and interviews that were recorded by many of the women in the ‘Working Name Matrix’ was not difficult as many of these women were prolific writers.

We utilized the Ohio History Connection library and manuscript collections extensively and poured over published collections of letters, handwritten letters and essays, autobiographies, and published speeches for great quotes.  If women were not represented in the Ohio History Connection collections, we searched the ever growing universe of historical documents and publications that are being digitized and made available for research online or requested materials from other libraries.  To incorporate quotes from contemporary women, curators worked with our oral history coordinator to record interviews with women that are working to promote women’s well-being, social and political equality today. [You can see those interviews here.]

We compiled quotations in more spreadsheets and thought about how this treasure trove of women’s writing could be organized.  While we always knew that the exhibit would span from the beginning of the suffrage movement before the Civil War until the present day, we also knew that we were not interested in presenting a chronological timeline of women’s history.  We drafted broad questions to pose on each panel and sorted quotes to match them with the question they seemed to answer.  As we went through several rounds of sorting and re-sorting quotes, we noticed that from the earliest time period to the present women were often discussing similar issues.  Quotes from women living and working in the 1850s often voiced concerns that women in the late 1900s and early 2000s still share. Therefore we tried to include quotes from different time periods on each exhibit panel. Most quotes are paired with images of the women and biographical information about the women is part of the image captions.There are women incorporated in this exhibit that are both famous and not particularly well known.  In the case of better known women we hope that exhibit viewers will learn something new about them.  While many people have heard of journalist and feminist activist Gloria Steinem, they may not be aware that she grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and her feminism is partially inspired by her grandmother, Pauline Perlmutter Steinem.  Pauline was an active suffragist and the first woman elected to the school board in Toledo. For lesser known women, we wish exhibit viewers to learn their names and read about their lives in their own words.

Pauline Perlmutter Steinem

The curatorial staff was very fortunate to collaborate with a talented graphic designer who used colors and fonts to visually communicate exhibit ideas.  For example, historical fonts were selected that are appropriate to the time period when quotes were written.  We also had the invaluable input of women’s history scholars who helped us to explain the historical significance of the passage of the 19th Amendment, and also its limitations in terms of not securing voting rights for many women who were part of minority groups.

The exhibit team was very excited to watch Design Team staff unbox the panels when they first arrived, even sneaking some photos from the second floor above…

After months of research and several rounds of marking up proofs of the exhibit panels with red pen, it was thrilling to see the fully produced exhibit panels.  The project director and curators got to personally transport the exhibit to its first venue, Ursuline College near Cleveland, and discuss the exhibit with faculty and students.  Over the course of 2020 we are eager to visit more venues where the exhibit will be displayed, see visitors’ reactions and answer their questions.

Lisa Wood
Curator for Visual Resources / Manuscript & Audiovisual Collections Manager

Posted January 3, 2020

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