The Suffrage Centennial: How, Why, and on What Terms Should We Mark this Moment?

The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment—the amendment that pronounced the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” This anniversary is at once an opportunity and a concern for those interested in intersectional feminist politics and coalition building. Indeed, there is an opportunity because this anniversary moment could galvanize and embolden present-day feminists by remembering a moment of collective action and political triumph. And, of course, such memorializing could offer real dividends in terms of electoral politics and voter activism as the centennial also happens to fall on a critically important election year. There is, however, a very real danger. The suffrage movement and feminist politics from that time on, in fact, have been riddled with exclusivity and racism. For example, black women were not invited to the first Women’s Rights convention in Seneca Falls, and they were routinely segregated from suffrage activism and events. Furthermore, and even more disheartening, white suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Carrie Chapman Catt courted the Southern vote by overtly expressing racist remarks, with Catt infamously stating that “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” These are all examples—and there are more—of how, as Angela Davis has written, “the woman suffrage campaign accepted the fatal embrace of white supremacy.”

Given the stakes and complexity of this moment, public figures from Brent Staples to Ann Gordon have called attention to this issue, urging the American public to think critically about what a centennial celebration should look like and do. For example, in her New York Times opinion piece titled “How to Celebrate a Complicated Win for Women,” Gordon asks, “Can we celebrate a transformation that broke men’s monopoly on political power while we simultaneously face up to ways that the ugliest aspects of American history influenced how citizens achieved this victory and how they behaved afterward?”

The conversation the scholars here contribute to helps to address this question and calls Peitho readers to consider their own responses. They push us to consider a range of ways to mark this moment as the authors think about how, why, and on what terms we should mark this moment. Nancy Small starts the discussion by directing us away from traditional, masculinist memorialization and towards what she calls “feminist co-memoration.” Building on the work of such scholars as Jacqueline Jones Royster, Gesa Kirsch, Aja Martinez, and Cheryl Glenn, Small sets out that feminist co-memoration work is defined by multivocality, active engagement, counterstory, and critical imagination—strategies that challenge us to reimagine how we engage the centennial. Amber Buck places the women’s arguments for Nineteenth Amendment within the larger discussion of voting rights. Through personal narrative and critical reflection, Buck links (and complicates) the victory in 1920 both by viewing it alongside the Bloody Sunday March in Selma and Voting Rights Act of 1965 and by considering how concerns regarding voting rights remain significant today. As Buck argues, the “limits” of the suffragists’ “tactics and achievements made the activism of the marchers in Selma necessary,” and she concludes her essay by arguing for intersectional, feminist activism that focuses on “true ballot access” in the 2020 elections.

Rachel Daugherty uses the exigence of the centennial to explore feminist archival practices by analyzing the curation of the Sister March archives—the archives that collected materials from the January 21, 2017 Women’s March and the 653 Sister Marches that happened worldwide that day. Daugherty examines the construction of these archives, paying special attention to how the archive both invites collaboration and discourages critique through its submission guidelines. Daugherty argues that as the centennial unfolds and we (re-)consider our history-making activities, we must understand how our “submission and selection criteria for archival materials frame memories of feminist activism.” Reva Sias and Katie Bramlett each use their contributions to highlight suffrage histories and memory that might go unnoticed during a moment when figures like Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul likely take center stage. Reva Sias presents Peitho readers with the activism of Mary Eliza Church Terrell, arguing that Terrell’s work for “women’s suffrage, racial equality, and human freedoms…should demand ourattention.” Examining Terrell’s rich rhetorical repertoire, Sias makes clear that “Terrell’s presence in the centennial celebration is an acknowledgment and reminder of the racism, prejudice, and biased treatment that marked the women’s suffrage movement.” Calling readers to remember the racism of this moment, Sias also makes clear that in spite of these barriers, African American women like Terrell “helped to deliver the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution.” In the final contribution, Katie Bramlett invites readers to consider voting rights activism within and beyond the U.S. borders as she examines the memorial exhibit “The Washington Home of the Phillipine Suffrage Movement.” Bramlett sees this exhibit as one that centers gendered experience within the history of Filipino voting rights—a history marked by “inconsistent and prejudicial policies perpetuated by the U.S. government concerning American colonial subjects.” Through her analysis, Bramlett argues that the exhibit foregrounds the multiple ways Filipina activists were marginalized and the many fronts on which they were fighting during and after the 1920 U.S. victory. In so doing, the exhibit, Bramlett asserts, “challenges viewers to think broadly about connections between suffrage and other forms of women’s activism within the Filipina community.” Bramlett thus ask readers to memorialize this centennial moment by taking on a transnational perspective.

The scholars in this conversation have inspired me to think capaciously, critically, and creatively about what it means to mark the 1920 passing of the Nineteenth Amendment. I hope they are inspirational as well to Peitho readers, prompting us all to consider how this moment could catalyze feminist intersectional memorial practice and present-day activism throughout and beyond 2020.

Stories of Filipina Suffrage: Remembering Marginal Histories in Colonial Contexts

As this Peitho conversation makes clear, the Nineteenth Amendment heralded new political possibilities mainly for white women. One group that we often do not consider is suffrage history of Asian American communities, especially Filipinas. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States took imperial control in the Philippines. Yet, instead of giving Filipino citizens rights to participate in United States politics, the new rule placed Filipinos in a political limbo. Beginning in 1901, Filipinos in the United States and abroad were considered as neither foreign alien nor American citizen, but simply as ambiguous U.S. “nationals” who held no U.S. political rights (Baldoz 74). Filipinos were granted the right to vote in elections in the Philippines in 1907; yet women were not granted the same right until 1937 (Carandang and Tiongson 81). As U.S. nationals, though, Filipinos—both men and women– could not become U.S. citizens or vote in American politics. The history of voting rights for Filipino Americans reveals inconsistent and prejudicial policies perpetuated by the U.S. government concerning American colonial subjects. Yet, Filipino American history is often glossed over, forgotten, or erased. As we reflect on ways to mark the suffrage centennial, we should consider this history and the women who continued fighting for voting rights even after the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment.

To embody feminist ideals and emphasize the historical contributions of all women who fought for equal rights and suffrage beyond 1920, it seems we need to expand our thinking to include colonial histories and to center attention on women who have more transnational identifications. Terese Guinsatao Monberg argues that our recovery of feminist rhetorics is guided by Western ideological assumptions about whose activities count as feminist and may “prevent many Asian/American women from being heard” (84). According to Haivan Hoang, Asian American rhetorical memory is a “rejoinder to the persistent forgetfulness that displaces Asian Americans from commonplace understandings of what is American” (63). Memorials created by and about Asian Americans can reshape our historical narratives to be more inclusive of diverse voices. Such community memory projects are noteworthy outlets for investigation, especially as we reframe our centennial discussions to be more inclusive of multiply marginalized women like Filipinas.

“The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” is an innovative project that works on addressing this memorial concern and is a model we should pay attention to at this centennial moment. It is an exhibit dedicated to establishing the presence of Filipina suffragists in Washington, D.C. and making clear the relationship between American history and women’s voting rights in the Philippines. This exhibit was created in 2016 by Titchie and Erwin Tiongson, a husband and wife research team who are not archivists or professional historians. Rather, they are what we might see as everyday public memory activists. “The Washington Home” is part of a group the Tiongsons founded in 2012 called Philippines on the Potomac, which is dedicated to the research and recovery of Philippine history. “The Washington Home” is a traveling exhibit and has been displayed in various libraries, museums, and archives, including the University of Maryland, Philippines Embassy, and Fairfax Museum and Visitor’s Center. The Tiongsons also travel with the exhibit and lecture about their research, the exhibit, and Filipina suffrage history in the United States. Until this exhibit came to be, these women and their presence in the United States had all but been forgotten.

“The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” exhibit features large panels filled with black and white photos, scanned newspaper articles, and other historical information about Filipinas in the United States during the twentieth century.

Fig. 1. “The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” exhibit.

As seen in Fig. 1, the exhibit is made of six large, olive green panels that display an abundance of pictures, historical overviews, and newspaper articles about Filipinas in the United States during the twentieth century. Although the title and exhibit make it clear that a major theme for the exhibit is Filipina suffrage history in the United States, the exhibit does not focus on suffrage activities alone. The variety of materials on display may even seem out of place when considering typical notions of suffrage that centers around voting rights. While all the women featured in the exhibit were active in civic life of some sort, including membership in charitable organizations, advocates for women’s literacy rights, and politicians in their own right, the materials displayed paint them not only as activists, but also as mothers, socialites, sisters, and wives. The result is that the exhibit evokes the genre of a scrapbook, one that recovers a comprehensive picture of the daily activities and identities of Filipina activists in twentieth century United States. Amy Mecklenburg-Faenger maintains that scrapbooks have historically allowed for women to construct their own histories and identities to act as a counter to dominant historical narratives that dismissed or erased their contributions (142). In the same way, the Tiongsons created a public display that contextualizes and recovers the lives of women who had been forgotten. The exhibit’s vision of what belongs within suffrage history is expansive and challenges viewers to think broadly about connections between suffrage and other forms of women’s activism within the Filipina community.

My contribution to the centennial cluster considers “The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” and the methods this community memory project employs to (re)frame suffrage history to consider the everyday experiences of Filipinas that were multiply marginalized. Additionally and importantly, “The Washington Home” also acts as a model of how everyday archivists move from archival research to a public memory project in ways that call viewers to recast their understandings of suffrage history. This memorial offers a much-needed intervention in our centennial celebrations, as it speaks to methods community members might employ when curating marginal histories in the face of archival scarcity and during this moment when more prominent figures like Susan B. Anthony might be highlighted.

I assert that the archival elements on display in “The Washington Home” work together to transform an eclectic collection of archival material into something like a public scrapbook that preserves a history that has been virtually forgotten and, even more, reconsiders what rights rhetorics and public memory might entail for women whose culture, nationality, and gender prevented them from gaining rights in both the Philippines and in the United States. I argue that “The Washington Home” exhibit uses archival material and diverse stories of Filipinas’ lives to expand the suffrage moment and its memory beyond just voting rights. Instead, the exhibit advocates for viewing suffrage moments that multiply marginalized women engaged to fight not only for the right to vote but also for the right to viewed as human. During the early 1900s, not only was the Philippine nation was under imperial control; but individuals of Filipino descent on American soil also experienced harsh prejudices and violence. For example, as Samantha Heinrich writes, a newspaper report on the 1904 World Fair discussed an exhibit of Filipino natives and maligned them as “‘dog-eaters’, ‘savages’ and/or ‘barbarians,’ while simultaneously gathering support for the continued presence of the United States in the Philippines” (Heinrich 26). This example is representative of a national discourse that Filipinas were attempting to combat as they also fought for their right to vote. Thus, the exhibit recalls a history when Filipinas were seen as less than human and had to negotiate widespread misunderstandings of their culture and identities.

Archival Scarcity: Rethinking the Scene of the Archive

“The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” was inspired by one serendipitous trip to the Library of Congress when Titchie and Erwin Tiongson unearthed a photograph (see Fig. 2). The photo was taken in 1922 and its description in the Library of Congress holdings was simple: “Philippine women received by the first lady.” The photograph features twenty-two Filipinas on the White House lawn with First Lady Harding, but, as the description of the photo indicates, there was little information about who the women were or what they were doing at the White House. Deeply interested in learning more about the image, the Tiongsons discovered that the Filipinas were the family members of a Filipino delegation that was visiting the United States (Carandang and Tiongson 76). The delegation was known as the Philippine Independence Mission of 1922 that advocated for Philippine freedom from U.S. imperial control (Onorato 559). While the Filipino delegation members and their meeting with President Harding are well documented, the lives and activities of their Filipina counterparts during this same time is not as easily accessible. Unable to let go of the mystery of exactly who these women were and their role in Filipino history, Titchie and Erwin set out to prove it was not “just one more vintage photograph—pretty, yet unremarkable” but instead this was a photo of “some of the most extraordinary women of their time,” who would help to rewrite suffrage laws in the Philippines (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). Titchie and Erwin eventually learned the names of most of the twenty-two women in the photo; however, historical records often included limited information about these women or their lives in the United States.

Black and white photo of a group of Filipina women on the White House lawn with First Lady Harding.

Fig. 2. Twenty-two unidentified Filipina women are greeted by First Lady Harding on the White House lawn.

In the face of archival scarcity, the creators of “The Washington Home” reimagined what could be considered as sources for their research and expanded their research methods to discover more about who the women were. Cheryl Glenn and Jessica Enoch assert the capacity of “smaller collections or accidental discoveries” to “expand our notions of what counts as a primary resource, as an archive” (328). Titchie and Erwin spent months reading biographies and newspapers, contacting community members who had family oral histories and photographs of Filipinas in the twentieth century, and visiting archives that had collections dedicated to Filipino history, like the University of Maryland’s Hornbake library. Through such actions, Titichie and Erwin “reth[ought] the scene of the archive” and collected archival materials from sources not typically taken advantage of by scholars (327). These community resources and smaller archives created a valuable outlet in which the Tiongsons could follow the traces of the women’s histories and collect a multitude of evidence about their lives in the United States.

By rethinking the scene of the archive, Titchie and Erwin culled enough material to create a scrapbook-like memorial where audiences can view the majority of the documents they discovered. This includes a collection of photos, cookbooks, newspaper clippings, and seemingly disconnected stories about Filipinas living in the United States in the early twentieth century. With the help of Monica Bascon, a graphic designer, Tichie and Erwin transformed their collection of eclectic archival documents into a narrative of Filipina activism, which reclaims Washington, D.C. as a rich site for Asian American culture and history.

Remembering Filipina Suffrage: Sophia de Veyra and the Negotiation of Multiple Identities

A prime way the exhibit encourages viewers to expand their knowledge of suffrage history is focusing on basic information about Filipina suffrage history and highlighting Filipina suffragist Sofia de Veyra as a key figure in women’s rights narratives. One of the first panels viewers of the exhibit encounter is entitled “The Women of the 1922 Independence Mission.” The White House lawn photograph of the Filipinas with First Lady Harding is at the top and the bottom of this panel. The middle section of the panel features a historical overview that gives a background of who the women are in the photograph and a brief history of Filipina suffrage. The central figure in the photograph facing Mrs. Harding is Sofia de Veyra (see in Fig. 2). The first two lines of the historical overview establish de Veyra as a key figure in the exhibit: “On June 19,1922, U.S. First Lady Florence Harding hosted the wives, daughters, and sisters of the delegates of the Philippine Independence Mission. The group was led by Sofia de Veyra, the wife of the Resident Commissioner Jaime de Veyra” (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). The caption goes on to make clear that, fifteen years after this photograph was taken in 1937, de Veyra and other women in the photo, like Ines Villa Gonzalez and Aurora Quezon, would “be instrumental in the passing of the September 1937 Election Law that allowed Filipina women to vote and run for office” (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). This information is important because it firmly situates the exhibit in context with women who played a key role in Filipina suffrage. Further, by focusing on de Veyra as a leader of the movement, it places her in similar positions of power like other suffragist leaders who may be better known to the viewer.

This understanding of Sofia de Veyra’s activism is strengthened by the first panel’s inclusion of Carrie Chapman Catt and her work with Filipina suffrage. The first panel displays a picture of Catt and the historical overview that follows explains that she visited the Philippines in 1912 to help establish and grow suffrage movements. During her trip she met with de Veyra and, despite Catt’s doubts about the success of her visit, the meeting directly inspired the founding of the Women’s Club of Manila (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). By invoking Catt and highlighting her connection with Filipina suffragists and her investment in their rights, the exhibit expands visions of the suffrage movement beyond the U.S. These women were U.S. nationals who worked with prominent American suffragists, and thus the exhibit intervenes in the typical omission of this fact. The scrapbook-like style of the exhibit reinforces this association. According to Danille Elise Christensen “scrapbooks can also be experienced as exhibits that makers use to position themselves actively within symbolic discourses and regimes of value” (Christensen 44). The photograph of Catt and the historical overview rhetorically creates an association between the women in the White House photograph, especially de Veyra, and American suffrage. As the text points out, the photo was taken two years after women in the U.S. were granted the right to vote in 1920. Filipinas (whether they were Filipino American or living in the Philippines) were still barred from the franchise. By bringing Catt into Filipina suffrage memory, the exhibit creates an unfinished narrative of suffrage, one which de Veyra would take up the responsibility to gain Filipinas the right to vote. 

The exhibit continues to highlight de Veyra as a key figure in Filipina suffrage history and as an active civic force challenging American racist perceptions of Filipinos. De Veyra is the only Filipina to have an entire panel dedicated to her, and it highlights her activities in D.C. including her time as a Red Cross volunteer and as a wife and mother. Her biographical overview uses a personal history that showcases her as a refined, elite individual—a narrative that works in direct contrast to the negative perceptions of Filipina in American culture. As noted, Filipinos were commonly labeled as savages. The savagery labeled upon Filipino bodies coalesced into a movement colloquially called “Positively No Filipinos Allowed.” Such a phrase was something that became commonplace in the mid-1900s. American Studies scholar Antonio Tiongson reflects on the prominence of “Positively No Filipinos Allowed” signs and the social and political realities Filipinos during this time and especially in his site of study, California:

Displayed prominently on doors of hotels and other business establishments throughout California in the 1920s and 1930s, [The sign “Positively No Filipinos Allowed”] was a sign Filipinos frequently encountered in their day-to-day lives symptomatic of their racialization—as nationals and aliens through state-sanctioned practices and policies, and as cheap labor by capital interests and imperative—that resulted in their disenfranchisement and disempowerment. As a consequence, Filipinos were denied not only public accommodation but also access to rights and entitlements, including citizenship, the franchise, and property ownership. (1)

Understanding these realities contextualizes how Filipinas had to negotiate prejudice and legal ambiguities as U.S. nationals. The exhibit creates a new narrative of Filipinas at this time through the collage of newspaper articles and photos that focus on de Veyra’s life as a refined wife and mother in addition to her activism.

The exhibit’s panels work together to show how civic engagement of Filipinas in D.C. took the form of embodying an elite persona, and we can read this persona as a targeted rhetorical strategy these women used to address the prejudices they faced. By featuring more traditionally “feminine” roles the Filipinas embodied, like that of mother and caretaker, the exhibit displays the multiple modes of activism the women employed to gain rights. Refined clothing and other feminine outlets of expression such as composing cookbooks can be useful outlets for cultivating elite identities to advocate for equal rights. Carol Mattingly notes the sophisticated way women have used clothing to “capitalize on the intense attention given their appearance in order to undermine criticism and to re-direct audience to their words” (36). Newspaper articles and photos featuring well-dressed Filipinas on the steps of the White House and at D.C. social events offer a more nuanced version of their suffrage activities and show how they physically presented themselves even in the face of signs like “Positively No Filipinos Allowed.” This history necessitates that we extend our understandings of how women engaged and navigated the suffrage moment. As Filipinas faced different kinds of prejudice, their intersectional concerns called for a variety of activist endeavors, not all of which centered on voting rights.

Sofia de Veyra’s panel directly shows how she navigated these elements to inspire changing U.S. opinions about colonial rule in the Philippines and the rights of Filipinas. The biography states that she acted as the Philippine’s cultural ambassador and that she traveled throughout the United States to give lectures on Filipino culture. Her presentations often focused on the arts and material culture and that she played an active role in reshaping the American imaginary concerning Filipinas and the ability of the Filipino people to govern themselves (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). The exhibit cites The Boston Globe’s assessment of her: “Those who have doubts about the ability of the Filipinos to govern themselves should have heard the illustrated lecture by Mme. De Veyra” (as qtd. in Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). This argument is furthered by the display of additional newspaper articles about de Veyra entitled “The New Women of the Philippine Islands” from the New York Times (1932) and “Foremost Filipino Women” from the Philippine Republic (1924). de Veyra is also mentioned multiple times throughout the exhibit panels, and she is depicted as a team player, leader, and friend who worked for over thirty years on suffragist and civic activities in the U.S. and the Philippines. Viewers can thus trace de Veyra’s influence throughout the exhibit, seeing how the other women featured in the panels are connected across time and pursuits. The last panel, titled “In the Footsteps of the Leaders of the Philippine Suffrage Movement,” especially emphasizes this connectedness by focusing on the women who became President of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino (1986) and Gloria Arroyo (2001), and consequently visited Washington, D.C. during the 1990s. By first establishing de Veyra as a leader on the first panel and then showing her connections to various outlets of Filipina civic activities, the final panel suggests that that due to the activism of their pioneer foremothers, especially de Veyra, Aquino and Arroyo were elected into the highest level of office.

Scrapbooking History—Recasting Suffrage Memory 

Overall, the exhibit panels present an eclectic, scrapbook display of materials used to leverage an argument about Filipina suffrage in the face of archival scarcity. While Sofia de Veyra’s suffrage activism is well documented, many of the other women in the exhibit might not be labeled as suffragists and much of the material about them and their achievements is not directly about suffrage. For example, the exhibit displays cookbooks written by or featuring recipes by de Veyra, photos of Filipinas with their families, and pictures of the D.C. homes where they lived and worked. By including these elements, audience members can witness the various activities Filipinas took on in order to counter the harsh stereotypes they faced in their everyday life and to argue for their equal status. To connect these everyday life elements with suffrage, “The Washington Home” calls viewers to leverage critical imagination. In Feminist Rhetorical Practices, Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch see critical imagination as thinking “between, above, around, and beyond” gathered evidence to speculate on “what might likely be true based on what we have in hand” (71). Using critical imagination, viewers are asked to make connections between the figures and stories displayed and to think about their connections to women’s rights and suffrage especially given their Filipino identity.

Although the Tiongsons’ research uncovered a variety of documents, the exhibit makes it clear that the story is unfinished. For example, the bottom half of the first panel is the White House lawn photo. Seventeen of twenty-two the participants are labeled with a number that corresponds with their individual snapshots, leaving five women unidentified. The labels let the viewers know the names of the women in the photo and a few of the women are featured in later exhibit panels, but for some, all that could be remembered is their name and for five women, the archive bore no results. According to Titchie, simply discovering who the women were was particularly difficult as many of the women had married before or after the photo was taken and recovering their names took significant work. Seeing this portion of the exhibit, viewers simultaneously learn who the women are but also witness the realities of archival scarcity and the need for critical imagination. The unlabeled women emphasize the unfinished story and ask the viewer to critically imagine their connection to prominent figures like de Veyra, suffrage, and First Lady Harding.

Displayed at three different points in the exhibit, the White House lawn photo suggests the social prominence of the Filipinas, especially as they relate to American politics. In a scrapbook display, a photo can “act as both icon (literally representing a real-world referent) and index (evoking a range of related forms and feelings)” (Christensen 84). The photograph acts as an index showing that the Filipinas had access to powerful figures in American history. It records twenty-two Filipinas on the White House lawn, including four of the most important suffragists in Filipina history: Sofia de Veyra, Pura Villanueva Kalaw, Aurora Quezon, and Ines Villa Gonzalez. The photo also then becomes symbolic for the Filipina suffrage movement, asking viewers to critically imagine that the photo is a Filipina suffrage delegation, even though what the women discussed with Mrs. Harding remains unknown. The exhibit is clear that the meeting itself is still a mystery, but we can see that viewers are asked to use their critical imaginations as they think about what might have been a topic of discussion. As the exhibit makes clear, its work is to “honor these women, their predecessors, and their modern-day successors. . . [M]ark[ing] their ties to the city[,]. . . we remember a group of women’s graceful and fleeting moment on the South Lawn” (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson).


“The Washington Home of Filipina Suffrage” displays the forgotten histories of Filipina suffragists in Washington, D.C. The Filipinas were in the nation’s capital in the midst of anti-Filipino sentiment. The women were physically present when businesses across the country were denying Filipinos entrance. Filipinas were fighting not only for voting rights but also the racism that targeted Filipinos. Titchie and Erwin’s memorial project thus reads suffrage broadly as activities around civics, citizenship, and activism and considers how Filipinas negotiated stigmas like being labeled “savages” and being denied rights by U.S. imperial rule. Filipinas recast themselves as feminine human beings who were worthy of rights, and they paved the way for women after them to become presidents and active participants in politics.

When faced with these prejudices, how did Filipinas advocate for rights in a country where they were considered less-than human? How did they do this in a way that was also mindful of their cultural and social values? To truly understand the answers to these questions more research must be done; however, the exhibit and its collection of the archival artifacts suggest what Filipina civic participation entailed during the suffrage moment in the U.S.—they were writing cookbooks and comportment manuals, they were wives, mothers, and daughters, they worked with Carrie Chapman Catt, they rewrote suffrage laws in the Philippines, and they attended tea with First Ladies. By ending in the near past (the 1990s), the exhibit also connects almost a century worth of activism to the achievements of modern Filipina politicians and argues for a consideration of how these actions animate one another. Public memory scholars engage memory texts as they “travel and circulate through networks and across geographical, temporal and other borders” (Nugent 96). At this centennial moment then, it is important to consider how memorials create narratives about the ways multiply marginalized women negotiated and connected to the suffrage movement. The “Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” exhibit especially helps us understand and think about suffrage in a more global and transnational light as it attempts not only to educate viewers about Filipina suffrage but also to (re)claim D.C. for Filipina histories that have been erased.

Works Cited

  • Balce, Nerissa S. “Filipino Bodies, Lynching, and the Language of Empire.” From Positively No Filipinos Allowed: Building Communities and Discourse. Edited by Antonio Tiongson, et al. Temple University Press, 2006.
  • Baldoz, Rick. The Third Asiatic Invasion: Migration and Empire in Filipino America, 1898-1946. NYU Press, 2011.
  • Borda, Jennifer L. “The woman suffrage parades of 1910–1913: Possibilities and limitations of an early feminist rhetorical strategy.” Western Journal of Communication (includes Communication Reports) 66.1 (2002): 25-52.
  • Carandang, Teresa and Erwin R. Tiongson. “Florence Harding Welcomes Philippine Women to the White House: Suffragist Leaders Identified in White House Photograph.” White House History Quarterly, vol. 53, 2019, pp. 74-83.
  • Carandang-Tiongson, Theresa (Titchie). Personal Interview. 25 October 2019.
  • Carandang-Tiongson, Teresa, G. and Erwin R. Tiongson. “About POPDC,” 2013.
  • Christensen, Danille Elise. “(Not) Going Public: Mediating Reception and Managing Visibility in Contemporary Scrapbook Performance.” Material Vernaculars: Objects, Images, and Their Social Worlds. Edited by Jason Baird Jackson, Indiana University Press, 2016, pp. 40-104.
  • Guinsatao Monberg, Terese. “Listening for Legacies.” Or, How I Began to Hear Dorothy Laigo Cordova, the Pinay Behind the Podium Known as FANHS.” Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric, edited by LuMing Mao and Morris Young, Utah State UP, 2008, pp. 83-105.
  • Heinrich, Samantha. “The ‘Savage’ Filipino Natives and Their Dog-Eating Habits.” Western Illinois Historical Review, vol. 8, 2017, pp. 25-41.
  • Hoang, Haivan. “Literacy, Race, and An American Ethos.” Writing Against Racial Injury: The Politics of Asian American Student Rhetoric. Pittsburgh, Pa., University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.
  • Mabalon, Dawn Bohulano. Little Manila is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California. Duke University Press, 2013.
  • Mattingly, Carol. Appropriate[Ing] Dress : Women’s Rhetorical Style in Nineteenth-Century America. Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.
  • Mecklenburg-Faenger, Amy. “Material Histories: The Scrapbooks of Progressive-Era Women’s Organizations, 1875–1930.” Women and Things, 1750-1950, Edited by Beth Fowkes Tobin and Maureen Daly Goggin, Ashgate, 2009, pp. 141-154.
  • Nugent, Maria. “On Buses: Still Photographs, Travelling Memories and Transnational Histories of Civil Rights Activism in Australia and North America,” Australian Humanities Review, vol. 59, 2016, pp. 96-113.
  • Onorato, Michael P. “The Jones Act and the Establishment of a Filipino Government, 1916-1921.” Philippine Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, 1966, pp. 448-459.
  • Philippine Women Received by First Lady. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.
  • Tiongson, Antonio. “Introduction.” From Positively No Filipinos Allowed: Building Communities and Discourse. Edited by Antonio Tiongson, et al. Temple University Press, 2006.
  • Tiongson, Erwin and Teresa Carandang-Tiongson. The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement. 2016, Traveling Exhibit.
  • Washington Exhibit Honors Filipina Suffrage.” June 2016, Embassy of the Philippines

African American Women and the Rhetoric of “Dignified Agitation”

The 2020 Centennial is a celebration of women’s right to vote in the United States. With the passage and ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution, the law erased voter disenfranchisement based on sex. Today, public and private initiatives, commissioned monuments, and curated spaces mark the 100th anniversary by remembering those women who put their intellect and bodies on the line in the fight for their right to vote. The centennial initiatives, monuments, and spaces also commemorate exemplar women and activism, as a product of the American suffrage movement that began with the first women’s rights convention in 1848. Yet, the 2020 centennial anniversary is not a celebration of equal access to the American ballot box. Even as we celebrate and recognize that the Nineteenth Amendment afforded white women due process (i.e., fair treatment under the law), it did not guarantee the right to vote for people of color. Likewise, the tenacity, hardships, successes, and sacrifices of white women are acknowledged as essential in the fight for the women’s right to vote, while the contributions of women of color were marginalized and are less visible in recorded history and public memory.  

I appreciate the 2020 centennial initiatives, monuments, and curated spaces that attempt to show both gender and racial contributions. Today, for example, in anticipation of the 2020 centennial, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery includes the images of African American suffragists such as Sojourner Truth, Sarah [Parker] Remond, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell, in its Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence exhibit. Through a touch of revisionist history, the exhibit serves as a contemporary counter-narrative to the pervasive anti-black post-American Civil War and Progressive-era hegemonic views on African American women in general, and as suffragists specifically. White women actively ignored, threatened, and silenced black women during this activist moment; as Rosalyn Terborg-Penn explains, “Black women were either invisible or expendable because they, even more than poor white women, represented a lesser class, which created problems for many of the white women in the woman suffrage network” (134). As a contemporary countermeasure, the Smithsonian’s Votes for Women exhibit illuminates and provides first-, second-, and third-generation African American women a space for equitable recognition and inclusion, as the exhibit “outline[s] the more than 80-year movement for women to obtain the right to vote as a part of the larger struggle for equality that continued through the 1965 Civil Rights Act” (Smithsonian). Still, how can we use the revisionist counter-narrative example of the Smithsonian’s Votes for Women exhibit to remember and speak to the past activisms and talents of African American women? What wisdoms, discourses, words, deeds, and strengths can we take from the past as examples and catalysts to embrace the work ahead and to celebrate all women and people, as we look forward to and beyond the 2020 centennial? 

In this essay contribution, I recall and analyze primary rhetorical historiographic artifacts that speak to the African American women’s experience within the women’s suffrage movement and at the Woman Suffrage Procession on March 3, 1913—the march in Washington, D.C., under the leadership of Alice Paul, chair of the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s (NAWSA’s) Congressional Committee, which brought together, by many accounts, over 10,000 women, and was pivotal in shaping the public narrative of disenfranchised women in the United States. I highlight the published and unpublished writing, personal discourses, and activism of Mrs. Mary Eliza Church Terrell, as a third-generation suffragist (as Terborg-Penn suggests). Terrell served on the frontlines and at the intersections for women’s suffrage, racial equality, and human freedoms, which should demand our attention. Enacting a rhetoric of “dignified agitation,” Terrell modeled and used her leadership as a writer, editor, educator, public speaker, and organizer to facilitate her calls for “meddling” and “agitation” to bring about social, gender, and political changes, in spite of Progressive-era hegemonic norms and Jim (and Jane) Crow racial segregation and discriminations. Through an examination of artifacts, this contribution relies on Terrell’s accounts about organizing and friendships with leading white suffragists and African American women’s club members. More broadly, Terrell’s papers, speeches, and articles show the black women’s desire for cross-racial collaboration and affiliations with white women’s clubs, even as white women found reasons to reject their participation. For example, speaking on the accomplishment of black women and “The Federation’s Attitude,” Terrell writes,

In refusing to receive a delegate from a colored woman’s club at its fifth biennial, the General Federation [of Women’s Club’s] has taken a long step backward. I feel sure, however, that on its sober thought it will not be so unjust and unkind as to exclude colored women’s clubs. Efforts have been made in the past to debar colored women from local white women’s clubs even in the broad and liberal West. . . . I have no doubt that the question of admitting colored women’s clubs to the General Federation will be eventually settled according to the eternal principles of right and justice, rather than according to the unworthy behests of prejudice and arrogance. (“What Colored Women Have Done”)

Terrell saw value in intercultural communication and participation as tools in the fight for the women’s enfranchisement. She was certain that white women would see the social and educational strides and uplift that black women had achieved since emancipation. Terrell hoped that “eternal principles of right and justice” would garner black women equitable treatment within the women’s rights movement, whereby white women could enter into fellowship with black women. We can learn from the primary rhetorical historiographic artifacts of Mary Church Terrell, as her experiences and voice are but one example of countless African American women, who contributed to the women’s suffrage movement in America, and whose memories should invigorate to the 2020 centennial anniversary. It is the intercultural fellowships and affiliations of the women’s suffrage activism that the 2020 centennial must address and celebrate.

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) devoted her life to service. Born the daughter of former slaves, into an affluent black family, Terrell recognized her privilege within the African American race, and she was determined to be a voice for women’s suffrage, in general, and to be a champion for African American women and the race, more specifically. Contemporary scholars of African American rhetoric and nineteenth-century women’s rhetoric recognize Terrell as one of the elite black womens’ voices of the age. For example, in Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women, Jacqueline Jones Royster identifies Terrell and other like-minded African American women (i.e., Mary Jane Patterson, Fannie Jackson Coppin, Frances Joseph Norris, Anna Julia Copper, and Ida Gibbs Hunt) as “agents of change,” who processed a “type of ethos, nurtured both formally and informally by a spirit of both intellectual engagement and social activism” (195). As one of the earliest African American women to complete a B.A. degree from Oberlin College, Terrell and others “demonstrated leadership abilities that were unparalleled in terms of power and influence, and they set the pace for how leadership among African American women would be shaped for generations to come” (Royster 195). In We Are Coming: Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women, Shirley Wilson Logan reflects on Terrell’s contributions as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women and as editor of the Woman’s Era’s Washington, D.C. column. Logan recounts Terrell’s public activism as an anti-lynching crusader, writing that Terrell “refuted the standard lynching-for-rape connection, associating it instead with slavery, race hatred, and lawlessness in her 1904 article ‘Lynching from a Negro’s Point of View’” (96-97). As an editor, writer, and public speaker, Terrell was uniquely positioned to use her rhetorical skills and powerful presence to challenge injustices based on race, gender, and class. Reflecting on Terrell’s 1950s activism to desegregate public spaces, Pauli Murray remembers,

Mary Church Terrell, militant civil rights activist and longtime feminist who had fought for woman suffrage . . . A patrician born in the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the essence of Victorian respectability, Mrs. Terrell led picket lines against downtown eating places and ultimately chaired the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the D.C. Anti-Discrimination Laws. (Song in a Weary Throat, 231)

As Murray’s memory recalls genteel propriety and social justice radicalism, it frames Terrell’s enactment of “dignified agitation” as a means for political redress and activism. From a review of contemporary scholarship, one may find Mary Church Terrell’s name, memberships, and leadership in connection with multiple civil rights campaigns, literacy and educational initiatives, women’s clubs, civil and human rights organizations, and quests for international human freedoms. In 2020, We should revisit Terrell’s first-hand accounts of the African American women’s suffrage experience, in light of the founding of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (1869) and of the founding of the National Colored Women’s Association (1896). The 2020 Centennial must be a tribute to all suffragists.

Despite antebellum and Progressive-era prejudices and black segregation, history shows that African American women have consistently worked for women’s rights and suffrage, even though it is true that no woman of color was present at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. At that convention, an enfranchisement collaboration was forged between white women and black men, as signified by the invitation and attendance of Frederick Douglass. It was through Douglass, by extension, that a mutually beneficial working relationship with free colored women was recognized. With the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, African American men were granted the right to vote. In effect, the amendment’s passage ended the close ties that were shared between white women and black men, during the abolitionist and early women’s rights movements. In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in New York. The NWSA enacted a Southern campaign strategy that sought to gain the support of Southern white women. Anthony and Stanton weaponized The Revolution (1868-1872), the weekly newspaper of the NWSA, to publish racist discourses and attacks against black civic participation in general, and against black men’s suffrage in particular. In contrast, Lucy Stone supported the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and the enfranchisement of black men, thinking that it would eventually lead to a women’s rights amendment. Later, Stone founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), in Boston, in 1869. Although the two women’s suffrage organizations functioned independently, until the groups merged in 1890, they were keenly interested in enfolding Southern white women into their ranks. Marjorie Spruill Wheeler explains,

The overtures of Northern women were crucial in the decisions of [Lucy] Clay, [Belle] Kearney, [Nellie Nugent] Somerville, and the Gordons [Jean and Kate] to become suffrage leaders; and once converted, these Southern suffragists helped recruit others. Clay, who was recruited into the movement with her mother and sisters in the 1880s by the combined efforts of Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone, in turn converted many other Southern women. (New Women of the New South 63)

Laura Clay, “the woman who was to become the key link between Northern and Southern suffragists” (114), supported Lucy Stone’s husband’s (Henry Blackwell) plan to make women’s education a qualification of suffrage. Blackwell, Clay, and others “would subsequently argue for woman suffrage as the key to solving ‘the negro problem’” (114). With the addition of the white women’s votes, they argued that “[t]he South had an opportunity to insure white political supremacy without taking the vote away from those already enfranchised” (114). By the time that the NWSA and AWSA merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890, its main appeals for women’s suffrage were to the legislatures of Southern states, the Democratic Party, and to Southern white women.

African American women were pushed further to the margins, as half of the black race gained the right to vote, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) continued the Southern campaign strategy that was carried over from the NWSA. For a decade, from 1890 to 1900, Anthony and Stanton, respectively, led the NAWSA. By the turn of the century, the NAWSA presidency transferred to Carrie Chapman Catt (1900-1904; 1915-1920) and Anna Howard Shaw (1904-1915), even as the organization blessed the segregation and exclusion of black women from the suffrage movement. The NAWSA leadership and members-at-large did not officially prohibit African American women from membership in the national organization. Still, state and local women’s chapters, leagues, and groups maintained their own autonomy, and only coordinated their suffrage efforts through national means. The NAWSA thus allowed each women’s club affiliation in each state to make membership decisions based on reasons such as race, to accommodate Southern white women, at the expense of black women.

As Terborg-Penn explains, “Despite arguments that national suffrage leaders were not really racists when they ignored or rebuffed Black women who sought inclusion, there is evidence that northern woman suffrage leaders used southern suffragists as foils for racist behavior among white women nationwide” (161). Although black suffragists did not completely trust their white counterparts, Terrell encouraged intercultural communication and coalitions. She was not a member of the NAWSA, but Terrell attended its national meetings, and she counted Susan B. Anthony as a friend, “which lasted till she passed away” in 1906 (Terrell, Colored Woman 143). As an educated black woman, Terrell worked in close proximity to spaces that were established for white women. Taking a page from the suffragists’ meetings, Terrell exclaims that she “entered enthusiastically into club work among the women of my own race” (Terrell, Colored Woman 148). She set her eyes on the creation of a national women’s association for the benefit of the African American women and the race. In 1893, she published “What the Colored Women’s League Will Do,” which was a call for support of her plan for such an organization. Speaking directly to black women, Terrell wrote, 

There is every reason for all who have the interests of the race at heart to associate themselves with the League, so that there may be a vast chain of organizations extending the length and breadth of the land devising ways and means to advance our cause. We have always been equal to the highest emergencies in the past and it remains for us now to prove to the world that we are a unit in all matters pertaining to the education and elevation of our race. (qtd in Terrell, Colored Woman 149)

While Terrell’s article is credited as the first written call to establish a national colored women’s league, there was a rejoinder from Mrs. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin who sent out a national call that brought black women to action. African American women answered Ruffin’s “Call to Confer” to discuss measures that would be needed to bring together the force, strength, and talents of black women, on behalf of the race. Guided by its motto: “Lifting as We Climb,” under the leadership of Terrell as the first president, and with the joining and collaboration of colored women’s clubs from around the country, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was founded in 1896, which started the nationally recognized Black Women’s Club Movement.

While serving as president from 1896 to 1900, the NACW offered Terrell access to black women on a national stage: “By the end of the [nineteenth-]century, the NACW was the largest federation of African American women’s clubs in the nation. From the outset, woman suffrage was a notable department of the NACW” (Terborg-Penn 88). But on the eve of the Woman Suffrage Procession, to be held on March 3, 1913, black women found active measures in place to exclude their participation in the Washington march. In fact, the 1913 women’s suffrage march in Washington reflected symptoms of the American racial divides, as well as internal disputes over the value and/or lack of value of African American women that had been allowed to fester within the American women’s suffrage movement. According to The Crisis, when black women attempted to register for the procession, they were rebuffed and ignored: “At first Negro callers were received coolly at headquarters. Then they were told to register, but found that the registry clerks were usually out” (“Along the Color Line,” 267). At the direction of Alice Paul, a white suffrage leader, the parade guidelines worked outrightly to hinder and reduce the visibility of black women “for fear that the Southern women affiliated with the parade and the populace of Washington would object to the presence of negro suffragists in the demonstration” (“Colored Women” 2). Regardless of tactics of evasion and misinformation, accounts show that African American women kept up a regular drumbeat to gain entry; they sent letters and telegrams to obtain permission to participate in the march. Although I was not able to find the names of specific NAWSA leaders who were against Paul’s directive, public accounts do state that the action was against the wishes of NAWSA leadership. For example, The Times Dispatch reports the following:

Miss Paul informed some negro suffragists who wished to march that while the National Association recognized equal rights for colored women, . . . the people of the South might take unkindly to their presence in the parade. This statement of Miss Paul rather discouraged the organization of a colored division in the parade. . . . But when the news of Miss Paul’s action reached the national headquarters, it was said it created a storm. (“Colored Women” 2)

While the rumors of fighting within the NAWSA were denied to the public, “at least one member of the national committee regarded Miss Paul’s action as disobedience of orders, as she had been instructed to permit negroes to march if they cared to” (“Colored Women” 2). It is clear from the suffragist infighting that the NAWSA leadership, at that moment, some members found value in black women’s participation and collaboration in the movement, but that esteem did not signal a reversal of the NAWSA’s systematic use of white supremacy policies regarding the “negro question” and marginalization of black women. On the other hand, the dispute to include black women over the wishes of Southern white women and the “disobedience of orders” may have foreshadowed Paul’s departure from the NAWSA because she left shortly after the 1913 suffrage parade, to start her own women’s suffrage organization, the National Women’s Party.

Despite systematic barriers, African American women were represented in the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession, as demonstrated by the participation of Colored Women’s Clubs members and other groups. More specifically, the suffrage march in Washington was important to black women because the suffrage parade was one of the first opportunities for racial and public activism for some of the black suffragists. For example, shortly after the foundings of (1) Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s Alpha Suffrage Club, located in Chicago, Illinois, and (2) Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, established at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., members of the Alpha Suffrage Club and the twenty-two founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority were included in the “Negro Women section” of the parade. According to sorority folklore, Terrell accompanied the twenty-two founder and carried the Delta Sigma Theta banner in the Woman Suffrage Procession. Under Terrell’s leadership, there was a well-appointed assembly of African American women in “the Negro Women section.” While Terrell was present on the day of the march, Wells-Barnett’s experience is most often recalled with regard to African American women and the Washington march: After she “consented to march with the women of her race when two [white] suffragists promised to join her,” Wells-Barnett defied the NAWSA’s directive to “keep [the Illinois] delegation entirely white” (“Illinois Women” 3). The Chicago Tribune reported that following behind the sixty-four white suffragists of the Illinois Delegation, “[s]uddenly from the crowd on the sidewalk Mrs. Barnett walked calmly out to the delegation and assumed her place at the side of [Miss Belle] Squire and [Miss Virginia Brooks]. There was no question raised of her eligibility and she finished the parade” (“Illinois Women” 3). For Wells-Barnett to complete the parade walking alongside white suffragists, without being arrested or assaulted, was a personal and political triumph. But she was not the only black woman who faced and challenged discriminatory practices at the march. 

Indeed, the presence of black women was a problem that caused objections from many of the “fair-minded” Northern white women delegations and the Southern white suffragists, despite some favorable newspaper reports of the day that stated, “no color line existed in any part of it.” Terrell’s public acclaim as the past-president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and as one of the leading members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) marked her as undesirable and a threat to Southern white-rule. In a 1974 interview, Alice Paul remembers her part in the 1913 parade, as well as Terrell’s. The interview reads in part:

I walked in the college section. We all felt very proud of ourselves, walking along in our caps and gowns. . . . It was very impressive. Then we had a foreign section, and a men’s section, and a Negro women’s section from the National Association of Colored Women, led by Mary Church Terrell. She was the first colored woman to graduate from Oberlin, and her husband was a judge in Washington. Well, Mrs. Terrell got together a wonderful group to march, and then, suddenly, our members from the South said that they wouldn’t march. Oh, the newspapers just thought this was a wonderful story and developed it to the utmost. I remember that that was when the men’s section came to the rescue. The leader, a Quaker I knew, suggested that the men march between the southern delegation and the colored women’s section, and that finally satisfied the southern women. That was the greatest hurdle we had. (Gallagher)

Paul praises Terrell for her community activism and organization abilities, even as she states that a division of white men marched between the black and white women suffragists. With the support of Southern white women hanging in the balance, Paul confirms that Terrell’s presence, specifically, and the black women’s presence and participation, in general, was the “greatest hurdle” to overcome at the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession. The black women’s participation in the march agitated the Southern white women who had bigoted reasons to despise Terrell and her fellow activists.

Terrell’s life and suffrage activism are examples of what the 2020 Centennial celebration should commemorate. Prior to her marriage in 1891, she accepted her role as a suffragist. Terrell explains, “The first large suffrage meeting which I attended was the one in Washington” (144). She recalls:

At the close of the one of the meetings the presiding officer requested all thoseto rise who believed that women should have the franchise. Although the theatre was well filled at the time, comparatively few rose. I was among the number who did. I forced myself to stand up, although it was hard for me to do so. In the early 1890’s it required a great deal of courage for a woman publicly to acknowledge before an audience that she believed in suffrage for her sex when she knew the majority did not. (Terrell, Colored Woman 144)

She accepted the call, and stood up. Terrell was trailblazer, as is evident in the women’s suffrage movement, as president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), as a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and the list goes on. In addition to her women’s club work, Terrell’s national attentions were far and wide, as she meddled, shamed, and agitated her target audiences with published rebukes and polemic titles, which are too numerous to mention here. With the power of her pen and oratorical skills, Terrell regularly pointed to the injustices against black women and the race as well as consistently called for women’s suffrage and equitable treatment of black women. Still, her rhetorical voice and leadership presents the “other side” of the case (as Terrell suggests), as her example indicates how African American women contributed to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and to the national women’s suffrage movement narrative.

Today, Terrell’s thoughts, writings, speeches, and activism still ring true, on so many fronts in America, as we look back at contributions of countless black suffragists and look to the promises of the 2020 suffrage centennial. Terrell exemplifies the successes and challenges of the African American women’s participation in the women’s suffrage movement. In addition to the images in the National Portrait Gallery, Terrell stands as only one example of the many African American women, who should be acclaimed and publicly recognized at this year and for years to come. Terrell’s presence in the centennial celebration is an acknowledgment and reminder of the racism, prejudice, and biased treatment that marked the women’s suffrage movement and our narratives about it. While we cannot correct the harmful actions of the past, the 2020 centennial should remember African American suffragists, who helped to deliver the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution. When the Votes for Women exhibit is removed and replaced at the National Portrait Gallery, let the record show that the 2020 centennial celebration included African American suffragists, who “lifted,” “climbed,” and enacted a rhetoric of dignified agitation to secure the women’s right to vote in the United States.

Works Cited

  • “Along the Color Line: Politics.” The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Editor: W. E. B. Du Bois, vol. 5, no. 6, April 1913, New York. Accessed 9 June 2019.
  • Anthony, Susan B., Editor. The Revolution. New York, 1868. Accessed 2 June 2019.
  • “Colored Women in Suffrage Parade.” The Times Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, 2 Mar 1913. Alexander Street. Accessed 10 June 2019.
  • Gallagher, Robert S., Interviewer. “Alice Paul: ‘I Was Arrested, Of Course,’” American Heritage. Accessed 15 June 2019.
  • “Illinois Women Feature Parade.” Chicago Tribune, 4 Mar 1913, p. 3. Accessed 14 June 2019.
  • Logan, Shirley Wilson. “We Are Coming”: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women. Southern Illinois UP, 1999.
  • Murray, Pauli. Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage. Pauli Murray Foundation, 1987.
  • National Portrait Gallery. Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence. Smithsonian Institute.
  • Royster, Jacqueline. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African-American Women. U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.
  • Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Indiana UP, 1998.
  • Terrell, Mary Church. A Colored Woman in a White World. Ayer Co., 1992.
  • —. “Pretty Writing Will Do No Good.” MCT Papers. Accessed 29 May 2019.
  • —. “What Colored Women Have Done: The Federation’s Attitude.” National Association Notes, vol. 3, no. 10, Nov. 1900, p. 1, 3. Alexander Street. Accessed 10 June 2019.
  • Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill. New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States. Oxford UP, 1993.

Intersectional Politics of Representation: The Rhetoric of Archival Construction in Women’s March Coalitional Memory

This is the rebirth of the women’s movement. These women are the suffragists of our time. And our movement isn’t going away—it’s just the beginning.

-U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on the Women’s March

The 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage—the right to vote—calls us to consider how we understand women’s activism today. The 2017 Women’s March on Washington is a pivotal example of feminist collective action as it was the “largest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history,” connecting 470,000 marchers in Washington, D.C. and five million marchers in Sister Marches worldwide through women’s activism (Chenoweth and Pressman). The suffrage movement and the initial formations of the Women’s March had overlapping similarities in that they were both marked by the centrality of white women to the movement. Kristan Poirot argues that “a rhetorical understanding informs accounts of racism in feminism’s ‘first wave’” because “in the minds of some nineteenth-century advocates, these contexts pitted sex against race, and those who advocated for woman attempted to ensure that white womanhood would win in the end” (A Question 44).1  Nearly a century later, the planners of the woman-led protest against Donald Trump’s inauguration initially used the name “Million Woman March” in ignorance of the 1997 Million Woman March in Philadelphia that focused on uniting women of color. While this naming confusion resulted in the revision to “Women’s March on Washington,” it also signaled greater concerns about potentially centralizing white women’s experience and repeating feminist activism’s historic exclusions of women of color. Women’s March organizer Vanessa Wruble explained: “What we were hearing was basically, ‘Black women, you should not march with these white women, and this is why.’ And then it was like, oops, a bunch of ignorant white women have reappropriated this name that black women used in the past. It was a huge controversy” (The Women’s March Foundation 37). Wruble went on to describe how the Women’s March organizers responded to this critical feedback:

I saw the opportunity—and this is where you can fault me for being naive and idealistic—but I saw it as an opportunity to try and properly build a coalition amongst women from different backgrounds. I jumped, thinking I can help make this happen. And I knew that the march had to be led at least in part by women of color. And those voices needed to be going on, because we can’t continue to make the same mistakes—we can’t do something that’s going to tear this country apart. We can’t afford that at all right now. (The Women’s March Foundation 38)

The Women’s March organizers clearly demonstrated their investment to intersectional feminism in order to avoid the mistakes of the past by creating a “woman-led movement” to express connected concerns in a pivotal political moment (Chenoweth and Pressman). The 2017 Women’s March shows how contemporary feminists can come together in collective resistance, but also how feminist activist practices are in progress, presenting opportunities for reflection that can lead to future growth. In this centennial moment, feminist rhetoricians need to take a critical look at how contemporary women’s activism is taking shape to prevent the exclusionary mistakes of first-wave feminists and make inclusive strides toward future action.

The 2017 Women’s March revealed how a contemporary women’s movement could utilize digital networks to coordinate 653 Sister Marches worldwide, and their “Sister March” archive is one such site of study to explore these concerns around inclusivity. The “Sister Marches” page on the Women’s March website connected participants by providing locations of planned marches worldwide, transportation information, and press resources, including links to a photo archive and video archive of the Sister Marches where anyone could download images from Flickr and video clips from Dropbox. On January 21—the day of the March—the “Sister Marches” page featured a new link to stream photos and videos through their Facebook and Twitter pages. The Women’s March organizers invited marchers to upload videos to the official Dropbox website and email photos to the Sister March Google Group as soon as possible, with the hope that “photos and videos could end up in the official Women’s March livestream!” (“Submit Your Sister March”). The YouTube recordings of the Sister March livestreams contain over 10 hours and 37 minutes’ worth of footage of images, videos, and social media posts. After the march, the Sister March archives contained a Dropbox video archive of 38 videos (produced and phone-recorded) titled, “Sister March Videos (For the Press),” and a Flickr photo archive with five albums, 871 total photos with a descriptive “About” page.2 Together, these three websites constituted the Sister March Network, the network of websites actively collecting Sister March photos and videos connected through the Women’s March main site. By creating decentered, plural, and digital records of Sister March memories, the Women’s March organizers attempted to construct archives that aligned with their collaborative and inclusive feminist values, creating an opportunity to study this coalition’s feminist practices through the construction of public memory in this archive.

In this article, I demonstrate how feminist rhetoricians can take a critical look at current women’s intersectional activism through archival construction: acquisition, selection, and curation methods that circulate selective histories through authorized materials. Feminist rhetorical historiographers like Jessica Enoch have established the “construction of memory” as a rhetorical act (“Releasing”), tracing the ways that ideology shapes the inclusion and exclusion of memories from archives and public memory. I apply Enoch’s concept of construction to the archival submission and selection criteria of the Sister March archives, treating archival construction as a rhetorical site for inclusion through representation in public memory. As a rhetorical analytic, archival construction encourages researchers to identify how, why, and for whom public memory is made, reiterating our discipline’s commitments to making visible what KJ Rawson calls “the invisible organizational logics of a collection” (“The Rhetorical Power” 337).  My analysis of the Sister March archives continues feminist rhetorical attention to archival metadata and organization (Graban; Graban, Ramsey-Tobienne, and Myer; Potts) by urging rhetorical scholars to question whether and how archival construction facilitates inclusive and exclusive representation in public memory. As my analysis will detail, I see that these archives work toward inclusivity by documenting the scope of the 2017 Sister Marches and inviting marchers to collaborate in the archival process, but fall short through disinviting critical feminist reflection and crafting an unquestioning narrative of unity through archival construction. In this centennial moment, feminist rhetoricians can look to archival constructions of women’s activism to take stock of our practices, assess how our practices reflect our values, and then critically engage in activism as it unfolds.

Archival Construction and Coalition-Building Practices

The Women’s March organizers created an opportunity to study their activist practices through their official archive—the Sister March archives—containing photos and videos from Sister March events worldwide. The archival construction of the Sister March archives reveals how the Women’s March organizers intended to frame these records for public memory. On the Women’s March website, the “Submit Your Sister March Photos and Videos” page encouraged marchers to connect their Sister March participation with archival practices: “On Saturday, January 21st, we will make HERstory when one of the largest worldwide grassroots mobilizations in history takes place. . . . [P]lease help our team capture this important moment in time” (“Submit Your Sister March”).3 Marchers were encouraged to submit “only your best” 5-10 photos and 2-3 videos, creating an initial participant curation method that anticipated many submissions. The submission page described how to upload videos directly to the “official dropbox,” and submit photos by email to the Sister March Google Group, making sure that submissions included location and attribution information to provide evidence of the scope of archival materials and a glimpse of the march itself. This page frames the Sister March archives as a historically significant event itself, encouraging marchers to generate evidence of the worldwide scope of participation as a coalition-building practice of solidarity with the Sister Marches. Through inviting submission in this way, the archive fosters collaborative connections with marchers by making archival practices part of the 2017 Women’s March experience.

The Sister March archives continues to shape its memorial activism by defining submission guidelines through conditional agreements for the Sister March Network: Community Guidelines and Terms and Conditions for Photo and Video Submissions. All Sister March submissions were subject to community guidelines, which list the following restrictions on photo and video content:

  1. No material with overt criticisms of politicians or political parties.
  2. No depictions of violence, destruction of property, alcohol, or drugs. 
  3. No material that contradicts the tenets of respect, honesty, transparency, and accountability in our actions.
  4. No material that undermines or contradicts the unity principles . . . that have been put forward by the Women’s March team. (“Submit Your Sister March,” emphasis in original)

Archival submissions that did not adhere to these restrictions would “not be published on behalf of the Sister March team” (“Submit Your Sister March”). Collectively, the Community Guidelines prioritize restrictions on the content of material submitted to facilitate positive narratives of marcher’s experiences that align with the Women’s March agenda.

Individually, each item on the Community Guidelines creates policing mechanisms for the Sister March Network to select or exclude photo or video submissions. The first criteria point restricts materials with “overt criticisms of politicians or political parties,” which seemingly contradicts the March’s initial exigence of resisting Trump’s election because of his misogynistic statements and actions. However, this restriction does shield the coalition from external political criticism or internal pushback from members whose political affiliations might differ. Indeed, the second criterion protects the Sister March Network and thus the Women’s March from liability for destructive or illegal behavior. However, the third and fourth criteria prohibit contradiction with the coalition, specifically with their moral actions and Unity Principles. These policing mechanisms allow the Sister March team to curate the photo and video submissions, creating a selection process that ensures that all archival materials posted on behalf of the Sister March team adhere to the Women’s March Unity Principles.

The Unity Principles is a six-page document that describes the coalition’s intersectional activist priorities regarding reproductive rights, ending violence, LGBTQUIA rights, worker’s rights, civil rights, disability rights, immigrant rights, and environmental justice.4  The Unity Principles connected the Women’s March organizers with marchers by articulating shared beliefs and agendas, but this statement was also critiqued by activists concerned about intersectional practices. Disability rights activist Emily Ladau found that the Unity Principles subsumed disability under larger frameworks of oppression5 and represented disability as a burden for care-givers: “It says that my existence as a disabled woman is a ‘burden.’ My existence as a disabled woman is ‘work’ for someone else. My existence as a disabled woman does not matter” (Ladau). Furthermore, Janet Mock, one of the contributors to the Unity Principles, noted how the initial release of the Unity Principles showed that the Women’s March organizers had removed the phrase, “we stand in solidarity with sex worker movements” and changed it to “those exploited for sex and labor” (@melisagira). Mock saw this language shift in the Values & Principles as “momentary erasure” of sex workers that perpetuated the “policing within and outside women’s movements that shames, scapegoats, rejects, and erases and shuns sex workers,” but also still encouraged sex workers to “[show] up to their local March and [hold] the collective accountable to our vast diverse, and complicated realities” (Mock). Both Ladau and Mock demonstrate how feminists can offer critique as productive engagement with a movement’s goals to advance future intersectional activism. Thus, by prohibiting contradiction with the Unity Principles, the Sister March archives calls contributors not to take on (and archive) intersectional critiques like Ladau’s and Mock’s, constructing an archive that could make the same mistakes of the past by silencing feminist critique.

Read positively, the Terms and Conditions reveals the Sister March attempting to live up to its intersectional goals by requiring users to agree not to “submit images that abuse or discriminate on the basis of religion, nationality, gender, sexual preference, age, region, disability, etc.” (“Terms and Conditions”). The Women’s March organization sought archival materials that supported their activist goals, and thus required that archival materials adhere to the coalition’s intersectional activist mission. These conditions echo the tenets of intersectional feminism by recognizing the intersecting features of identity than can be subject to oppression and thus ensure that submitted materials will be representative of the Unity Principles. In short, the Sister March Network submission guidelines ensure that the collected memories would represent the Unity Principles and therefore the future activism of the Women’s March organization. In this instance, Terms and Conditions ensure inclusive representation of intersectional feminist values in the Sister March archives under the leadership of the Women’s March organization. 

As a feature of archival construction, submission guidelines provided the Sister March Team with control over archived materials, revealing how this decentered intersectional feminist movement planned to use archived memories of the 2017 march to recruit for future activism. The Women’s March organization became the guiding leadership for intersectional activism when they were incorporated with 501(c)(4) status after the 2017 march, making their organization directly responsible for the Sister March archival content (Women’s March, Inc.).6 Forming the Women’s March organization connected the 2017 march to future intersectional activism through the Sister March archives by crafting a positive and unquestioning narrative of unity in the 2017 march. Yet as this analysis has already shown, the productive feminist critiques that guided this movement’s growth were potentially silenced through the Sister March submission guidelines. On the one hand, submission guidelines provide archival and organizational alignment with intersectional values, but on the other hand, the same guidelines reify a partial, specifically positive narrative of the 2017 Women’s March. While the archival collection process characterized marchers as collaborators in the Sister March archives, the archival Terms and Conditions redirect marchers’ collaborative agency to the Women’s March organization.7 Thus, the organizational responsibility of the Women’s March removed individual agency from marchers through archival construction.

By using submission guidelines to craft a narrative via submissions that follows the Unity Principles, the Women’s March organizers created a positive archival legacy for public memory and a selective official history of this ongoing social movement. Importantly, these submission guidelines are no longer associated with the Women’s March official website, nor are the links to the Flickr or Dropbox pages that house the Sister March archives. One can perform a Google search for “Sister Marches Flickr” and find the official photo archives, but the Dropbox link to the Sister March videos and associated submission guidelines are only available through Internet Wayback Machine links. When you visit the official Women’s March website, it no longer contains a page dedicated to the 2017 march. Instead, this intersectional feminist organization is now focused on future activism and this year’s national Women’s March. Thus, the Sister March memories have been integrated into the Women’s March organization and therefore disconnected from their archival contexts. Without knowledge of these archival submission guidelines, archival researchers would lose this sociohistorical context of this social movement’s archival collection and selection practices. For feminist researchers, it is critical to understand these guidelines and their work in shaping archival construction in order to understand how intersectional activist practices included or excluded from the archives.

I argue that the internal archival contradictions of collecting positive memories of intersectional activism while removing the individual agency of marchers prioritized the long-term growth of the Women’s March organization over the feminist value of critical reflection that benefitted the organization since its inception. As a feature of archival construction, archival submission guidelines can dictate the conditions for public memory by restricting submissions and policing recorded materials. Social movement scholar Suzanne Staggenborg argues that “[c]oalition organizations need structures that allow for input from different types of members. . . .Coalitions and SMOs [social movement organizations] that lack participatory structures may engage in actions that do not benefit all of their members equally” (“Conclusion” 323). Thus, the archival construction of social movement archives can provide rhetorical evidence connecting activist values and archival practices. But to generate this evidence, inclusive activist movements like the Women’s March need to welcome materials that document the moment, not materials that reify a specific narrative. As feminist rhetoricians, I argue we can actively engage in ongoing social movements through their memorials to encourages critique as a path to positive feminist growth.

Evaluating Archival Construction for Public Memory

As we reflect on the importance of the suffrage centennial for women’s history, we can also appreciate how the networked, digital, and transnational nature of our current activism necessitates new methods of critical engagement. Archival construction reveals how social movement rhetoric extends into public memory by aligning a movement’s agenda with the archived materials. The archival construction of the Sister March archives offers curation criteria that shaped what marchers saw as possible for submission and provided the Women’s March organization with ownership over all Sister March archival materials. For rhetorical historiographers, these kinds of criteria are vital for understanding the content of the archive, and thus exist as part of the social movement’s rhetoric in the archive. If we, as feminist rhetoricians, are invested in developing methods to evaluate public memory projects around women’s rights and activism, then those methods must facilitate what Stephanie Kerschbaum describes as the “difficult, intersectional questions about how our histories are composed” (“Inclusion”). As feminist rhetorical scholars increase their attention towards intersectional coalition-building practices, archival construction can reveal the inclusive and exclusive rhetorical practices shaping coalitional memory. With the archival metadata now available to contemporary researchers, we can use archival construction to determine how the memorial activism crafts narratives for public memory to shape future activism.

Public memory projects like the Sister March archives present an opportunity to discover the politics of inclusion and intersectionality in action, creating new possibilities for rhetorical analysis that could intervene in ongoing movements and their memorials. Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge have urged feminists to analyze the critical praxis of intersectionality, emphasizing that being critical in social movements working toward “equity, freedom, and social justice” requires a “self-reflexivity of thought, feeling, and action about one’s own practice” (Intersectionality). The Sister March archives created a woman-led, collaborative archival collection of memories from marches around the world. But also, the archival construction of the Sister March archives paints a positive, yet partial picture of the 2017 Women’s Marches by excluding critical reflection on the organization’s values in the archives. Feminists and archivists should be encouraged that contemporary social movements are actively documenting their actions and telling their own stories. But also, archival construction reveals the inner practices of social movements, creating a need to understand how and why activists tell their own histories. Ultimately, the Sister March archives circulated valuable memories of this significant feminist activist moment and provided insight into new intersectional activist archival practices that demand feminist rhetorical attention.

If the Women’s March organizers are indeed modern suffragists, as the opening epigraph suggests, then I see this centennial anniversary as an opportunity for feminist rhetoricians to determine how contemporary women activists are making their own histories, and how the archival construction of women’s activism makes arguments for future feminist action. I urge feminist rhetoricians to consider the troubles of suffrage memorialization as rooted in selective archival practices, specifically the ways that submission and selection criteria for archival materials frame memories of feminist activism. Coalitional social movements function as rhetorical negotiations of shared exigence and vision. Since the Women’s March contained so many different and connected ideologies, the Sister March archives could be instructive to rhetoricians who seek to discover what Benita Roth describes, “the meaning of coalition for situated groups of social movement actors in order to understand how or whether that meaning may have influenced decisions that participants made” (113). As rhetorical scholars, our critical attention to archival construction in records of women’s activism can enable us to build better future coalitions on tenets of accountability, transparency, and inclusivity.


  1. Poirot uses the singular word “woman” to indicate how “‘woman’ and ‘female’ function as changing prisms” of meaning through which identification and difference are rhetorically defined (A Question 5).
  2. While the Dropbox video archive only allows users to view the files, Flickr’s “About” page feature provides a description of the archive’s purpose to “feature select highlights from over 600 solidarity events planned globally” and share the Women’s March mission (“About”).
  3. Interestingly, the Women’s March livestream did not include any photos or videos from the Sister Marches. The livestream was a five-hour YouTube broadcast of the Washington D.C. march and speakers, reinforcing the centrality of the Women’s March organization and leadership in this coalition.
  4. The “Unity Principles” were first released by the Women’s March organizers as the “Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles” nine days before the 2017 March. This six-page document includes four major sections: “Overview & Purpose,” “#WHYWEMARCH,” “Values & Principles,” and “About This Document.” The “Overview & Purpose” outlines the vision for this “woman-led movement,” and “#WHYWEMARCH lists a legacy of 27 women “revolutionary leaders who paved the way for us to march,” (Women’s March on Washington). The third section, “Values & Principles,” contains nineteen bulleted descriptions of what “we believe,” giving the impression to readers that the “we” in these statements are the members of the Women’s March coalition. Finally, the “About this Document” section lists 23 contributors (and recognizes unlisted contributors) that collaboratively shaped this “agenda” for coalitional action.
  5. The Unity Principles statement Ladau refers to reads, “We recognize that women of color carry the heaviest burden in the global and domestic economic landscape, particularly in the care economy. We further affirm that all care work—caring for the elderly, caring for the chronically ill, caring for children and supporting independence for people with disabilities—is work, and that the burden of care falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women, particularly women of color. We stand for the rights, dignity, and fair treatment of all unpaid and paid caregivers. We must repair and replace the systemic disparities that permeate caregiving at every level of society”
    (Women’s March on Washington).
  6. 501 (c)(4) organizations are recognized by the IRS as tax-exempt, as long as the organization adheres to the guidelines for political activity within promoting social welfare. While this status does not allow organizations to directly participate or intervene in political campaigns, it does allow them to “engage in some political activities, as long as that is not their primary activity” (“Social Welfare Organizations”).
  7. If a marcher chose to submit their photos or videos, they granted the Sister March team a “perpetual, nonexclusive, world-wide, royalty-free, sub-licensable license to the submissions,” meaning that these records could be shared and commercialized for future use (“Terms and Conditions”). By submitting to the Sister March archive, a marcher acknowledges that their content “may be edited, removed modified, published, transmitted, and displayed by the Sister March team.” Indeed, the Terms and Conditions state that as a contributor, “you waive any rights you may have in having the material altered or changed in a manner not agreeable to you” (“Terms and Conditions”).

Works Cited

  • @melissagira. “Further confusion: NOW the @womensmarch platform says… this? (And still, no, no reply from my earlier inquiry.)” Twitter, 17 Jan. 2017, 1:10 p.m.
  • Bland, Bob. “Women’s March on Washington: Origins and Inclusion.Facebook 20 Nov. 2016.
  • Chávez, Karma. “Counter-Public Enclaves and Understanding the Function of Rhetoric in Social Movement Coalition Building.” Communication Quarterly vol. 59, no. 1, pp. 1-18.
  • Chenoweth, Erica and Jeremy Pressman. “This is What We Learned By Counting the Women’s Marches.The Washington Post, 7 Feb. 2017.
  • Collins, Patricia Hill and Sirma Bilge. Intersectionality (Key Concepts). Cambridge, 2016.
  • Enoch, Jessica. “Releasing Hold: Feminist Historiography without the Tradition.” Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric, edited by Michelle Ballif, Southern Illinois UP, 2013, 58-73.
  • Felsenthal, Julia. “These Are the Women Organizing the Women’s March on Washington.” Vogue, 10 Jan. 2017.
  • Gillibrand, Kirsten. “Tamika Mallory, Bob Bland, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour.Time. Accessed 1 June 2019.
  • Graban, Tarez Samra. “Ripple Effects: Toward a Topos of Deployment for Feminist Historiography in Rhetoric and Composition.” Networked Humanities: Within and Without the University, edited by Jeff Rice and Brian McNely, Parlor Press, 2018, pp. 106-130.
  • Graban, Tarez Samra, Alexis E. Ramsey-Tobienne, and Whitney Myers. “In, through, and about the Archive: What Digitization (Dis)Allows.” Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities, edited by Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson. University of Chicago Press, 2014, pp. 233-244.
  • Hu, Nian. “How the Women’s March Failed Women.” The Harvard Crimson, 16 Feb. 2017. Accessed 20 May 2019.
  • Kerschbaum, Stephanie L. “Inclusion.Peitho vol. 18, no. 1, 2015.
  • Ladau, Emily. “Disability Rights are Conspicuously Absent from the Women’s March Platform.” The Establishment, 16 Jan. 2017. Accessed 24 Apr. 2017.
  • Mock, Janet. “Women’s March ‘Guiding Vision’ and its inclusion of Sex Workers.” Tumblr 17 Jan. 2017.
  • Poirot, Kristan. A Question of Sex: Feminism, Rhetoric, and Differences That Matter. University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.
  • Potts, Liza. “Archive Experiences: A Vision for User-Centered Design in the Digital Humanities.” Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities, edited by Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson. University of Chicago Press, 2014, pp. 255-262.
  • Rawson, K.J. “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 4, 2018, pp. 327-351.
  • Roth, Benita. “‘Organizing One’s Own’ as Good Politics: Second Wave Feminists and the Meaning of Coalition.” in Van Dyke and McCammon, pp. 99-118.
  • Social Welfare Organizations.IRS, 13 May 2019. Accessed 12 June 2019.
  • Staggenborg, Suzanne. “Conclusion: Research on Social Movement Coalitions.” Strategic Alliances: Coalition Building and Social Movements, edited by Nella Van Dyke and Holly J. McCammon, University of Minnesota Press, 2010, pp. 316-329.
  • “Submit Your Sister March Photos and Videos.” Women’s March on Washington, 22 Jan. 2017, []. Internet Archive [].
  • “Terms and Conditions for Sister March Photo and Video Submissions.” Women’s March on Washington, 22 Jan. 2017, []. Internet Archive [].
  • The Women’s March Foundation. Together We Rise. HarperCollins, 2018.
  • Van Dyke, Nella and Holly J. McCammon. Strategic Alliances: Coalition Building and Social Movements. University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
  • Women’s March. Women’s March on Washington, 2016. Accessed 18 Jan. 2017.
  • Women’s March, Inc. Women’s March Annual Report 2017. Web. 14 April 2019.
  • Women’s March on Washington. “Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles.” Web. 12 Jan. 2017.

Memorials in Action: Building Intersectional Futures

1. Tuscaloosa, AL, October 2017.

It’s a warm Saturday in late October, and my canvassing partner and I are walking over cracked sidewalks and around parked cars in the late morning, before the football game starts. I knock on the painted front door of the next house. A young African-American girl greets us and then runs to get her mother. Soon a woman comes to the door, blinking into the sunlight.

“Sorry,” she says. “I just got off of work. How can I help you?”

I introduce myself and my partner, verify her name, and then launch into my prepared script, loaded into the app on my phone where I found her name and address: “I’m here with the Doug Jones campaign, and we’d like to ask if you will be supporting him in the special election in December?”

“I sure will,” she smiles. “And I’m telling all my friends and neighbors to vote too.” We talk for a few more minutes about the election, whether she wants a yard sign, and if she might be able to volunteer with the campaign. While I live just a few blocks away, I have never met my neighbor before, and this is a transactional relationship. I wish her a good day and turn away from the house, marking her off as “Strong Support.” I walk to the next house on my list, feeling like I’ve done something productive.

This neighborhood in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is only 80 miles from Selma and the Edmund Pettis Bridge, the site of the Bloody Sunday March on March 7, 1965, organized by James Bevel and Amelia Boynton and led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams, who, along with approximately 550 people of all ages, were attacked by Alabama state troopers. The demonstrators were attempting to march to Montgomery in support of voting rights and in protest of the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson, an activist and preacher from nearby Marion, who was shot and killed by an Alabama state police officer the previous week (Lewis & Aydin, 2016).

I am constantly reminded, and I actively remind myself, of how close I am to this history, as I walk through the old, historically African American neighborhoods of Tuscaloosa on my weekly canvassing routes throughout the fall of 2017. As soon as I discover the Details feature in the MiniVAN voter engagement app I have loaded into my iPhone, I become obsessed with it as I knock on door after door–first registered: 1965, first registered: 1965, first registered: 1966, first registered: 1968. I’m speaking to people who registered to vote for the first time as a direct result of the Bloody Sunday bridge crossing, the eventual march to Montgomery, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the securing of women’s suffrage, I am thinking less about the grainy photos of suffragists from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people like Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, and Carrie Chapman Catt, and more about the marchers in Selma: Amelia Boynton-Robinson, Annie Lee Cooper, and Marie Foster. Women’s suffragists came chronologically before the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement, yet the limits of their tactics and achievements made the activism of the marchers in Selma necessary. More than 50 years later, that work feels both more relevant than ever, and also continually needed. At the centennial, then, we should be considering movements for racial as well as gender equality and how we can continue their work in 2020.

2. Selma, AL, March 2018.

Just five months after my canvassing day in October 2017, I am in Selma to participate in the Bridge Crossing Jubilee, an annual week-long celebration in the city commemorating the Bloody Sunday March, complete with speeches and a march through town and over that same Edmund Pettis Bridge. I walk as part of a multiracial group of people, behind now-Senator Doug Jones and Congressman John Lewis, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Senator Kamala Harris, and a broad U.S. Congressional delegation.

The Bridge Crossing Jubilee is a practice of remembering and memorializing. Rather than just planning events around specific milestones and anniversaries, every single year people travel to Selma to participate in the commemorations and walk across that bridge, led by those who participated in the 1965 demonstration. This practice is living history in action. In holding the march each year, the Bridge Jubilee organizers not only keep the memory of the event alive, but they demonstrate that honoring the legacy of the original marchers means a constant reenactment of their work. That Sunday in Selma, I can see the top of John Lewis’ head as we cross the bridge, I feel both the solemnity of the event and the hope of some forward progress, and I know I’m witnessing something important.

But as a white woman who grew up in the Midwest, this is not my history, and I am not sure of my place here. I am not entitled to claim any part of the feelings of this day, and while I had no family on that bridge in 1965, I have benefited from a lifetime of white privilege that allowed me to take voting rights for granted. Before I moved to Alabama, I had only vague notions of the bravery and radical resistance of activists fighting for voting rights in the face of very real violence. These events felt like something from the distant past, something over and settled. It doesn’t feel that way on this day in Selma.

The movement that secured voting rights for women also does not feel like something I can claim or identify with. The history of the women’s suffrage movement feels more distant, and more problematic.

Just on the other side of that infamous bridge in Selma is a small, low building of corrugated steel with a flat roof, which is the home of the National Voting Rights Museum, an unassuming and easily overlooked building on the way out of town. For a $6.50 entrance fee, you can view personal artifacts from the Bloody Sunday marchers, written and oral first-hand accounts of the event, and other artifacts from the Selma to Montgomery marches and the subsequent Bridge Jubilees. Like the bridge crossing event itself, the museum also feels like living history, as people have contributed their and their families’ stories through artifacts, oral histories, and continued reflections on the event’s legacy in Selma.

The museum, founded in 1990 by Dr. C.T. Vivian, Albert Turner, Amelia Boynton-Robinson, and Marie Foster, among others (National Voting Rights Museum), also places the events in Selma within a larger context of voting rights movements. In the largest front room of the museum is a timeline of “Voting Rights Milestones,” which begins with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, “signed by wealthy white men.” An entry from 1916 references Jeannette Rankin as the first woman elected to Congress. The next entry from 1917 is a photo of Alice Paul and the Silent Sentinels in front of the White House, and the third date, 1920, accompanies a photo of white women dressed in black, holding banners with the words VOTES FOR WOMEN on the front. The timeline entry for 1920 reads, “The 19th Amendment enacted guaranteeing black and white women the right to vote.” Less of a living history than the other exhibits in the museum, this timeline and the moments of the women’s suffrage movement are presented without additional commentary, tracing a history that created both the space for and the necessity of the events in Selma in 1965.

Further along a museum hallway sits a smaller room dedicated to women’s contributions to the voting rights movement and to politics in general, with silhouettes of Fannie Lou Hamer, Sojourner Truth, and Ida B. Wells painted onto the back wall. The display notes how the women’s rights movement of the 1970s owed a great deal to the Civil Rights Movement that came before it, but there is little other commentary to this curation. The exhibit mainly features pictures of women roughly organized by era. Portraits of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony hang next to Harriet Tubman and Charlotte E. Ray. “Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton writing harsh criticism of the Republican Party, who were pushing for African American male suffrage, published the Revolution,” the curatorstates frankly. While Anthony and Stanton are recognized in this museum for their contributions to women’s suffrage, the curators also emphasize the racist arguments made by these women in direct opposition to voting rights for African-American men. While the timeline in the front room of the museum notes the importance of the Nineteenth Amendment in securing the right to vote for “black and white women,” the caption connected to the portraits of Anthony and Cady Stanton draws attention to a woman’s suffrage movement led by white women that had competing aims with movements for racial equality and often worked in opposition to them. In failing not only to truly secure the vote for all women but also work against racial equality, the portraits of the white women in this room hang in tension, their place in the museum more of a question than a part of the narrative.

3. Tuscaloosa, AL, October 2018.

In October, I’m back to canvassing in different neighborhoods in Tuscaloosa, cul de sacs this time on the edge of town, places with no sidewalks and long driveways. Fueled by enthusiasm from the Doug Jones win and perhaps over-confidence that we can do it again, I’m working with the county party to get more Democrats elected and to break the Republican super-majority in the state legislature. But these are gerrymandered Republican districts, and we’re having much less success this time, as well as a precipitous drop in volunteer numbers.

We knock on a wooden door with decorative glass panes, and an older white woman answers. My frequent and dedicated canvassing partner, also an older white woman, has decided that she can appeal to Republicans on the angle of fiscal responsibility. I let her do the talking as she moves from a reference to the recently impeached Republican governor Robert Bentley to the accusations against former Senate candidate Roy Moore.

“Those accusations bothered me,” my canvassing partner says, “and I think it’s time for some women to run things.”

The woman at the door nods. My partner hands her a postcard for Miranda Joseph, a young African-American woman running for State Auditor. “Miranda Joseph is a professional, certified auditor who has real exciting ideas about how to make this state work better for Alabama taxpayers, and how to keep state property from growing legs and walking away. This is a non-policy position, and you really should consider voting for her.”

The woman nods without saying anything, thanks us, and wishes us a good day despite the hot weather. She keeps the postcard.

Three weeks later, on Election Day 2018, I’m poll watching all day at an elementary school in a split party precinct where we’re hoping to have some success for our candidates. I watch hundreds of people come into the polling place over the course of the day, quickly mark one circle on the front of their ballot and vote on the four amendments on the back, one of which enshrines “the sanctity of unborn life” into the Alabama State Constitution.

“Remember,” one person says to another as they hunch over a table meant for small children. “It’s straight Republican ticket, and yes on all four amendments.”

As they slide their ballots into the optical scan tallying machine, I feel our weeks of work and arguments for the policies of specific down-ballot candidates evaporating into the air. An older, white male poll worker asks me with an air of curiosity and disdain, “how does it feel to work here all day with the enemy?”

I laugh him off while readjusting the orange Poll Watcher badge on my shirt, all while repeating this stark fact over and over, more despairingly throughout the day: White women voted for Trump. White women voted for Trump. White women voted for Trump. White women voted for Trump.

This reminder crystalizes into a hard truth by the time the polls close: white women will support systems of gender inequality in order to maintain white political power. Miranda Joseph would go on to lose the State Auditor race to an older white man who not only had given a speech to the League of the South in 2015, an organization described as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but also had recently surrendered his law license to the State Bar’s Disciplinary Commission (Cason, 2018). Joseph lost by 20 points, roughly the same as the rest of the statewide Democratic Party slate. The abortion policy amendment passed, 59.01% to 40.99%.

4. Montgomery, AL, March 2019.

“In its history, Alabama has never had a free and fair election,” Stacie Propst announces to a crowded seminar room. I’m in Montgomery for the Organize Alabama conference that emphasizes training and strategies for get out the vote efforts. Organize Alabama is one of many progressive groups trying to fill the gaps left by the divided and ineffective state Democratic Party, and Stacie Propst is the Director of Emerge Alabama, the state arm of Emerge America, which trains Democratic women to run for office. In its first year in operation in 2018, Emerge Alabama trained 36 women to run for office or manage political campaigns throughout the state. One alumna was successful: Marshell Jackson Hatcher, Circuit Court Judge for the 10th Circuit in Birmingham.

Stacie Propst has an argument. Keri Leigh Merritt has written about the ways that many Southern states like Alabama established an “intricate system of voter suppression, intimidation, and outright election fraud” in the mid-nineteenth century to keep anyone but wealthy slaveholders from voting, a system that she argues still functions effectively today (Merritt).

Sitting in a classroom at Troy University’s downtown Montgomery campus, I am at the epicenter for the struggle for voting rights in America, steps from the state capital, just 50 miles from Selma and 70 miles from Shelby County, plaintiff in the Shelby County v. Holder (2013) Supreme Court case that gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

More recent voting rights restrictions allowed after the Shelby decision sound similar to the judicial and extrajudicial restrictions to African American voting described in detail at the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma. In 2014, Governor Robert Bentley, as a result of that very Supreme Court decision, implemented a strict voter ID law in Alabama. In 2015, citing budget concerns, he closed a number of driver’s license offices, leaving almost a third of counties with no open locations, including 8 of 11 counties with a majority African-American population. The Obama Administration’s Department of Transportation forced the state to reopen some of them at the end of 2016, shortly before Bentley was removed from office, but damage was done, and this was yet another incidence in a long series of overt and covert political actions to deny African Americans the right to vote in Alabama.

In 2017, the state legislature passed HB282 that revised Alabama’s constitution to more narrowly define crimes of “moral turpitude,” allowing thousands of people formerly convicted of felonies in Alabama to restore their voting rights through an application process. Secretary of State John Merrill, however, deemed education about this new law unnecessary and a federal judge agreed. This decision has left the responsibility of communicating with individual voters about their new eligibility and assisting with the opaque application process to outside groups, led mostly by the ACLU, the SPLC, and the Equal Justice Initiative, among others.

These organizations have done extraordinary work, though they are just getting started. The Alabama Voting Rights Project, a division of the SPLC, estimates that over 200,000 people are now eligible for voting rights restoration (Sheets), but most of those newly eligible individuals have not yet had their voting rights restored. Applicants are also required to pay all outstanding fines and fees before they can register to vote, adding a poll tax to an already draconian process.

5. Tuscaloosa, AL, May 2019.

I write this just two weeks after the passage of HB314, which makes abortion a Class A felony in Alabama with no exceptions for rape or incest. While much media attention has been given to the twenty-five white, male Senators who passed the legislation through the upper chamber and sent it to the Governor’s desk, this bill was written and sponsored by Representative Terri Collins, a white woman, and signed by Governor Kay Ivy, another white woman, who cited her commitment to “the sanctity of life” while signing away the rights to bodily autonomy of roughly half of the state’s citizens. That day I thought again about the pictures of the suffragists in that museum in Selma and the calculation they made to secure their own voting rights while leaving others behind.

I wanted to share this more reflective narrative of my experiences participating in voter engagement in Alabama because I believe the best way to commemorate the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment is to reflect on the continued existence of barriers to voter enfranchisement and to act to dismantle them. To truly consider the state of voting rights at the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, one must consider Alabama, where these rights are tenuous and seemingly always under attack, where white women will sell out other women to maintain their position adjacent to white male political power and to uphold systems of white supremacy, systems that white women, myself  included, are complicit in. But the problems of Alabama, while they may sometimes appear to be extreme, are not unique to Alabama. They are America’s problems too.

Commemorating the passage of the nineteenth amendment means acknowledging and rectifying the truths of the Voting Rights Museum in Selma: securing the right to vote for women was only securing the right to vote for some women. For Black, indigenous, and Latinx women- identifying people, those rights would only come after additional activism and struggle. We need to include those movements in our conversations about the Nineteenth Amendment as well, as the failures of the women’s suffrage movement made them necessary. In other words, we can’t celebrate the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment without Selma, and Selma should be part of our discussion about the Nineteenth Amendment.

The Voting Rights Museum in Selma reminds us that honoring the memory of those who fought for voting rights means continuing that work, which never went away but has become more urgent after the Shelby County v. Holder (2013) decision. There have been several new groups and initiatives created in the South to combat continued and renewed problems of voter disenfranchisement. Stacey Abrams’ organization Fair Fight aims to combat voter suppression in its many current forms. Black Voters Matter, founded by activist LaTosha Brown, works on voter engagement and fights voter suppression across the country, though much of its work is concentrated in the South. Former Obama staffer DeJuana Thompson also created Woke Vote in Birmingham, AL before the Senate special election in 2017, which encourages younger African-American voters to participate in politics. These organizations, all founded by Black women, are carrying on the legacy of the activists in Selma, working to expand access to the ballot and to combat voter disenfranchisement everywhere. I believe white women especially have a responsibility to join in these efforts, work for woman-identifying candidates of color, and fight against voter disenfranchisement. As the Voting Rights Museum in Selma reminds its visitors, the white suffragists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often pursued access to the ballot at the expense of other groups, and the victories of the Nineteenth Amendment left many people of all genders behind. White women in particular have some things to make up for.

There is another way to see the room emphasizing women’s contributions to voting rights at the Voting Rights Museum. Facing the wall of pre-Reconstruction era activists I mentioned earlier in this essay (including Cady Stanton, Anthony, Tubman, and Ray) is another wall, a collection of more contemporary activists and politicians, displayed with little commentary. Most of the portraits are of African-American women, but not entirely. Ella Baker’s photo hangs near Septima Poinsette Clark, Cynthia McKinney, Joan Baez, and Hillary Clinton. The text of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” is displayed in the middle, inviting interpretation from the museum’s visitors. Does the presence of this text imply a commonality among the figures on the wall? Is it instead reminding us that African-American women like Sojourner Truth  had to fight for their own inclusion in the women’s suffrage movement? How might we build coalitions instead?

Today I can only state this as a question, but I wonder if we might, 100 years after the Nineteenth Amendment, stand in greater solidarity across race and gender binaries as well, to work for true ballot access. This work isn’t something white women should pursue for women of color; we need to work alongside and to support women of color who are already fighting for voting rights for all.

So in 2020, at the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, I pose a challenge and a call to action. Voting rights are under attack all over the United States. Identify barriers to voting rights and political participation in your own state and your community and work to change them. Work to move past the fraught history of early women’s rights leaders to build intersectional coalitions for change. The best way to honor the work of the activists that came before is to follow in their footsteps. And we have work to do.

Works Cited

From Commemoration to Co-Memoration as Feminist Practice

From national museum displays in Washington, D.C. to classroom-specific projects, the centennial anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification will generate many re-tellings of events and people that brought national women’s suffrage to fruition. As a practice of collective memory, commemoration is a “calling to remembrance, or preserving in memory, by some solemn observation, public celebration, etc.” (“Commemoration”). Traditional public commemoration is a structured ritual, what I assert below as being masculinist in nature. Particularly as we observe the anniversary of women’s suffrage, I argue that we, as rhetoricians, should be part of re-envisioning such public memory efforts—including suffrage centennial projects—as sites of “feminist co-memoration.” By this I mean promoting the design of sites and activities that take up feminist rhetorical practices such as Gesa Kirsch and Jaqueline Jones Royster’s critical imagination and strategic contemplation as well as Cheryl Glenn’s rhetorical feminist tactics, including resistance to hegemonic narratives, re-centering of dialogue over monologue, and reaffirming the value of experience and emotion (4). Through shifting our shared memory rituals, we can make them more dynamic and hopeful opportunities for growth, reassessment, and resistance. Co-memoration grounded in feminist rhetorical principles can disrupt the national master narrative of suffrage as centered in the efforts and agency of an elite group of white women and might guide us toward building coalitional intersubjectivity.

To begin, my essay contrasts masculinist commemoration with my proposed framework of feminist co-memoration, using principles from scholars in feminist rhetorics and illustrated via example suffrage centennial celebrations. The last sections of this piece then turn to broader comments regarding memory and belonging, as well as the generative but meaningful challenges feminist co-memoration presents especially at this moment of the suffrage centennial.

Commemoration as Traditional Masculinist Practice

Individual, social, and collective memories intertwine in the construction of public memory or our shared “vernacular presentation of the past composed specifically for the purposes of the present” (Enoch 62). Traditional commemorative practices vary, but in naming them as masculinist, I mean they tend to be public displays that are univocal, in control of a passive audience, and reaffirming of a standard—typically white, colonialist, and/or conquering—narrative. Paralleling conceptions of masculinist rhetoric as public, competitive, and agonistic (Enoch 58, Glenn 1), such memorial practices implicitly and explicitly establish an authoritative history to which our memories should conform. Yael Zerubavel refers to the singular story of traditional commemoration as a “master commemorative narrative” (237) undergirding collective memory and reinforcing those in power. The master narrative is constructed via commemorative materials and affirmed through memorial activities. For example, the master narrative of U.S. national women’s suffrage begins in Seneca Falls, New York, proceeds to be headquartered in New York City and Boston, and concludes as a grand victory in Nashville and Washington, D.C. 1920. This singular telling of our national history and public memory minimizes or erases, for example, progress located in the western states of Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah, all of which granted women’s suffrage prior to 1900. Similarly, our master narrative focuses almost exclusively on the work of a small group of elite white women, minimizing the contributions of African American abolitionists and suffragists among other marginalized voices.

Specific sites (e.g., locations, museums, battlefields), statuary, artifacts, photographs and paintings, and other audio and visual materials serve as our common public commemorabilia (Casey 184). These bits and pieces of history become public memory through traditional commemorative activities performed by the collective communitas or community of commemorators (184). Examples include visiting a site to view artifacts and review the associated signage and/or audio, attending an event with a speaker, watching a parade, following a guided tour, watching a re-enactment, or attending a memorial ceremony (typically led by one or a small number of speakers). In these traditional practices, attendees are expected to participate through passive listening, taking in the narrative without overtly questioning it. Although time may be allotted for a question-and-answer session run by a lead speaker or organizer, exchanges are controlled as social norms dissuade questions that may be judged off-topic or confrontational. Such practices preserve or stabilize memory via the authority of a singular and presumed shared perspective. Masculinist commemoration does not invite complexity; instead, we are consciously and unconsciously “incorporated” into the narrative via our passive embodied practices (Connerton 338). Performing our roles as recipients in traditional commemorative activities works in service of the master narrative because our limited bodily participation keeps the audience in our “place” and thereby serves as “a measure of insurance against the process of cumulative questioning entailed in all discursive practices” (342). Masculinist commemorative activities habituate us into submission.

In their evocations, commemorations bring the past into the present and project it to the future. Such circling through time is what Krista Ratcliffe describes as “the presence of the past in the present, that is, the then-that-is-now” (107). In the process of acknowledging, embodying, and enacting the past, we reify the (often marginalizing, destructive) tropes of the past without, as Ratcliffe reminds us, assessing our accountability for that past. In other words, even as we commemorate the past, we damn ourselves to repeat it. The centennial suffrage celebration will evoke images, symbols, and affiliations that will consciously and unconsciously reinforce a singular timeline and locations of activity. And despite recent increased hauntings by and even open display of the skeleton of white supremacy in our collective national memory closet (Vinitzky-Seroussi 375), the designated white heroines of the master narrative—Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, and Carrie Chapman Catt—will remain at the forefront, reinforcing a history that simultaneously denies a multiplicity of memories. Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, and other less recognized women of color may have some limited presence, such as in the 2019-2020 display at the National Portrait Gallery, “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence,” but outside of a small representative group (Wells, Truth, Harriet Tubman), African American women’s work is still being recuperated after decades of neglect. Their stories are still counter to the master narrative. As further illustration, I am not optimistic that traditional suffrage celebrations will acknowledge the limits on which women counted as “citizens” in 1920. I am not optimistic we will see similar celebration in 2024 honoring the centennial of the 1924 Snyder Act that made Native Americans citizens (and thus enfranchised).

Co-Memoration as Rhetorical Feminist Tactic and Feminist Rhetorical Practice

To release ourselves from the entrenched narratives and practices that traditional commemorations reinforce, we should recast public memory activities—including but extending beyond centennial celebrations—as feminist co-memorations. Whereas commemoration is univocal, controlling, and narrative-affirming, feminist co-memoration has the potential to be a re-membering together. By “re-membering,” I mean a collaborative reassessment and reassembly of our memories and of our commemorative practices as inspired by rhetorical feminist tactics and feminist rhetorical practices. In Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope, Glenn grounds rhetorical feminism in the “foundational feminist concepts [of] openness, authentic dialogue and deliberation, interrogation of the status quo, collaboration, respect, and progress” (4). Rhetorical feminism then is a set of tactics for rejecting dominant agonistic rhetorical practices in favor of feminist principles. Rhetorical feminism is “dialogic and transactional . . . attends to (provisionally) marginalized audiences . . . and employs and respects vernaculars and experiences . . . as sources of knowledge” (4). Rather than fall prey to the rules of hegemonic discourses, rhetorical feminism is grounded in local and varied experiences, and it respects the power of emotion (2-4). Complementing feminist rhetorical tactics are broader feminist rhetorical practices informing the boundaries (or expansions) of our knowledge-making. In the sections that follow, I develop my framework for feminist co-memoration out of its roots in rhetorical feminist tactics and feminist rhetorical practices as well as apply it to examples of suffrage centennial celebration.

Co-Memoration as Active Engagement through Multivocality and Countermemory

To resist habituating participants into a singular accounting of history, co-memoration makes space for many voices. In other words, co-memoration invites talking back. Such dialogue can take place in different and multiple spaces. Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi divides contested public memory into two categories: “multivocal commemoration” in contrast to “fragmented commemoration.” Both should be of interest to feminist co-memoration. Multivocal commemoration occurs in a common space and time when an audience shares different interpretations of the person(s) and/or event(s) being remembered. Multivocality responds to disagreement by working towards solidarity. By comparison, in “fragmented commemoration,” people gather in segregated spaces according to competing interpretations of the people/events being remembered. In fragmented commemoration, conflict is sharpened through the re-membering process, making solidarity more difficult or impossible (375-377). Protests are one form of fragmented commemorative activity. For example, Columbus Day, which traditionally memorializes the Italian colonizer’s arrival in the Americas, has inspired fragmented commemoration via street protests. Such protests began in purposefully separated spaces such as public demonstrations in which like-minded folks gathered to reject the Columbus-as-Heroic-Discoverer narrative and sought to distance themselves from those who accepted it. Such divided or fragmented protests, however, have potential to grow and create alliances for larger change. As of late 2019, many cities and five states have formally re-centered Native American perspectives by establishing Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of and as a rejection of Columbus Day (see Murphy and Ortiz). A potential move of relational accountability for feminist co-memoration would be to make room for both fragmented and multivocal commemoration styles, perhaps in hopes of transforming fragmentation into multivocality through coalition building. In other words, multivocality (and listening to fragmented commemoration) should challenge audiences and participants to engage discomfort as potentially productive.

Opening our co-memorative practices to multiple voices invites countermemory, which runs against the grain of the master narrative. Countermemory, like feminism, is “highly subversive” as it “challenges the hegemony” of history and our shared understanding of the past (Zerubavel 241). A primary way that competing countermemories emerge is when diverse experiences are laid alongside each other via storytelling or counterstory. Building off of Latinx and Chican@ scholarship in critical race theory, education, and law, Aja Martinez demonstrates the power of counterstory in her analysis of race and gender in academia. The institutional (public) memory of graduate student Alejandra’s experience in a graduate program serves as the “stock story” or master narrative (40-45). Martinez then constructs a counterstory from Alejandra’s perspective revealing a very different set of memories regarding her experience (45-50). Martinez’s counterstory is a composite of historical “facts” (data and scholarly work) told through a contextualized conversation. In addition to elevating personal experience and renewing our value of pathos—both rhetorical feminist moves—Martinez’s work illustrates that viewing stories alongside one another reveals complexities in how memory is (re)negotiated and how (counter)memory informs our sense of “reality.”

Countermemory and counterstory resist simplicity and purposefully ground co-memoration in complexity. For the national suffrage celebration, such complexity can be explored through differences in regional location (e.g., the northeastern and the western U.S.) or through intersectional lenses amplifying suffrage as not simply a gendered but as enmeshed in class, race, and other systems of interlocking oppression (Collins and Bilge). An intersectional (re)evaluation, for example, might offer a countermemory of the Nineteenth Amendment not as an end unto itself but as a point along a greater plot of white control over who “counts” as “Americans” (and as humans) and over civic processes and civil rights—a plot that continues today through gerrymandering, policies to intimidate and/or suppress minority voters, and other efforts. Who do our memories celebrate, and who/what is forgotten? And what do we gain and risk by revising our shared public memories based on counterstories? Multivocality and countermemory/counterstory necessarily threaten the stabilizing and unifying ceremonial nature of commemorative activities. Rather than assuming our experiences align with a master narrative (as occurs in masculinist commemorative practice), co-memorative activities should court disruption of narrative comfort by seeking out new viewpoints and assessments. 

To consider sample suffrage centennial celebrations going on in the U.S. through a framework of feminist co-memoration, I searched online for a calendar of national events. Several were available, but I chose a calendar hosted by the “2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative” (WVCI) because of the group’s stated purpose to advertise centennial celebration events that go beyond historical accuracy to engage diverse organizations and audiences in sustained critical thinking about the amendment and equal rights (“About Us”). At the time of this writing, thirty events were posted on the calendar between September 2019 and May 2020. Offerings included a mixture of panels and presentations, visual and performing arts, tours and re-enactments, a statue unveiling, a quilting bee, and two fundraisers (a golf tournament and a wine/food tasting). From the brief event descriptions, I sought evidence of that which could potentially illustrate features of co-memorative activities. 

A few of the calendar entries did seem to be planned as projects of feminist co-memoration. For example, “Feminist Youth Voices” demonstrated potential for multivocality and space for countermemories. Hosted by the Lincoln School in Providence, Rhode Island, the event description promised a “diverse group of young female identifying speakers will explore their relationships to the past, present, and future of feminist ideals and their visions for what it means to them in 2019” (“Cocktails & Conversations”). The event’s link to the suffrage centennial is clear but is not the controlling theme. Instead, the speakers’ relationships to the topics are foregrounded. The event description anticipates multivocality in its common location and potential for solidarity-building among varied perspectives. Any panel participant’s reflections might confront the other speakers, host, and audience with potentially uncomfortable realities of, for example, then-that-is-now discrimination and/or outmoded notions of gender and sexuality. Such openings invite rhetorical feminist reassessment, challenging commemorators to deeply reflect and perhaps to participate in the conversation. As feminist co-memorative activities, this panel seems designed to avoid re-calcifying the suffrage master narrative by eliciting new stories about the complexities of belonging.

WVCI calendar entries promote festive commemorative events, but details about opportunities for active engagement remain vague. At the “Tea and Tour” in honor of “Susan B. Anthony and Catherine McAuley: Voices for Others,” participants are invited to “[c]elebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment with a tour of our historic home steeped in the spirit of Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy and frequent meeting place for Susan B. Anthony and the Suffragettes. Enjoy an elegant tea in recognition of these two women who were a voice for others” (“Tea and Tour”). Being in an extraordinary historic place may indeed inspire feelings of bodily incorporation—of existing in the layers of history and memory—but beyond just the sense of “being there,” the tour might be further designed to inspire active participatory co-memoration. For instance, a rhetorical feminist co-memoration could start with a tour but proceed to dialogue among attendees regarding their own memories of women’s struggles for equality and their own (dis)connections to the master narrative of suffrage. Forms of active engagement can and should vary, however, as not all participants want to engage in the same ways, particularly if their perspectives might not seem welcomed. Organizers of co-memorative events must be open to and create spaces for potential discomfort from participants who do not share—or who even actively resist—the master narrative. Feminist rhetorical co-memoration should seed spaces for radical rhetorical listening but should allow for silences, too, and examine those silences for their implications (see Carrillo Rowe 180).

Co-memoration as Critical Imagination and Strategic Contemplation

While traditional commemorative practices shut down inquiry, feminist co-memoration must encourage an opening up via learning, reflecting, and reassessing. Because of limited space, I focus here on two facets feminist co-memoration growing out of Kirsch and Royster’s “feminist rhetorical practices”: critical imagination and strategic contemplation. Critical imagination is a form of re-membering. It is an “account[ing] for what we ‘know’” through history and a (re)thinking “between, above, around, and beyond this evidence to speculate methodically about probabilities” (650). Developing a framework for co-memoration is, in itself, an act of critical imagination as it is an envisioning how we might depart from masculinist practices and master narratives to be more inclusive and complex in our re-membering. In the shared memorial process, feminist “imagination” means we are not required to limit ourselves to only “objective” evidence in what and how we re-member. Memories passed down through family and community stories (i.e., social memory and individual memories), evidence that “disrupt[s] public/private divides” (660), and other ephemera traditionally deemed unfit as historical artifacts, therefore, are revived as valuable co-memorative materials. The Monumental Women project, which successfully lobbied for the first public memorial to real-life women in New York City’s Central Park, is an example of critical imagination at work in feminist co-memoration. Sculptor Meredith Bergmann imagined a meeting among Stanton, Truth, and Anthony, a congregation that could have happened but which is not documented in history. Bergmann purposefully devised the statue to emphasize feminist collaboration (and coalition building) as a source of power (see Haigh and Frederick).1  

Additionally, the “critical” in critical imagination makes room for critique as part of co-memoration. Critique is not meant to dishonor the people, places, and events of the dominant narrative but instead should broaden that honoring through questioning who gets space in the narrative and by inclining our public remembrances towards better inclusivity. Critical imagination “actually use[s] tension, conflicts, balances, and counterbalances more overtly as critical opportunities for inquiry in order to enable a conversation, even if only imaginatively” (Kirsch and Royster 652). Making space for generative critique and dialogue is a rhetorical feminist tactic, a feminist rhetorical practice, and a means of building differential belonging. Where traditional commemoration asks participants to solemnly submit themselves and their memories to the singular historical narrative and to limit their future ponderings to what that narrative makes possible, feminist co-memoration invites critical re-examination and expansion as a means of honoring the people and events being recalled.

Strategic contemplation re-affirms feminist co-memoration as an embodied practice. In the face of our many competing work and personal demands, strategic contemplation is Kirsch and Royster’s way of telling us we must devote time and space to meditate over our questioning and re-membering (656). Strategic contemplation creates spaces for transformation, moments during which new ideas, perspectives, or experiences can change our outlooks and modify our allegiances. Through co-memoration and strategic contemplation, we can choose to move “back and forth between past and present, between visiting history [or memory] and bringing them into the present, between searching archives and walking the land” (657). Kirsch and Royster are describing historical research in the archives; our memories are our own personal, social, collective, and public archives. When we move between those memories and lived experiences of what Kirsch and Royster call “walking the land,” we ponder how Ratcliffe’s then-that-is-now affects us, as individuals and collectives. 

A memorial event on the WVCI calendar illustrates the potential of critical imagination and strategic contemplation for co-memorative practices. “Ida B. Wells: Warrior for Justice” is a re-enactment in which writer and actress Safiya Bandele speaks from the perspective of the famous African American writer and civil rights leader. Bandele’s performance invokes critical imagination by re-presenting Wells via a living actress for contemporary audiences. Such re-enactments may be based on a set of historical artifacts, but weaving together (re-membering) those incomplete threads to re-create a living persona is an act of critical imagination. Audience members have an occasion to move between the memories presented on the stage and their own lived experiences in relation to race, to the power of participating in the public sphere, to history, to memory (e.g., genealogies, legacies), and more. In other words, audience members can compare the re-constructed world of Wells with their own. The very spaces—locations and times—created by immersion in the performance invites strategic contemplation. Although the event description does not include mention of post-performance discussion with the writers/actors, such dialogue would present potentially rich opportunity to explore how the performance inspires the audience to think (or potentially re-think) the suffrage movement as perpetually centered in a white narrative. The radical goal of feminist co-memoration is bigger than critically transforming spaces and practices; however, the real feminist opportunity of co-memoration is for developing differential belonging and coalitional (inter)subjectivities.

Coalition Building as Co-Memoration Goal

Commemorative spaces hail us to a common belonging; the question is this: in what kinds of spaces do we long to be? As Aimee Carrillo Rowe writes in Power Lines: On the Subject of Feminist Alliances, “where we place our bodies, how we spend time, the mundane and significant events that give texture to our lives all give rise to our becoming” (34). Such “mundane and significant events” are the materials of our memory work. As a calling to remembrance, the women’s suffrage centennial can motivate us to consider “be longing” or how “being is formed through our longings” (26). What are we longing for during our co-memorating of women’s suffrage? Our current political situation presents big—and often terrifying, frustrating, and enraging—issues concerning women and other marginalized groups. Threats to reproductive rights, gender-based pay inequities, overt display of white supremacy, backsliding on LBGTQIA+ rights, violence towards refugee and immigrant families, and global warming, as well as a political system that seems dysfunctional at best: these issues dominate the news and can be overwhelming. If commemorative acts are moments of reflection intended to bring us together, then feminist co-memorative acts can motivate not only resistance, but also differential belonging that might lead to coalitional (inter)subjectivity in the face of these wide-reaching crises.

Carrillo Rowe’s theory of “differential belonging” challenges us to mindfully seek out relationships with those who are not like us. With whom do we choose to co-memorate? Memories are how “we vibrate in unison” (Halbwachs 140). Purposeful shifting among different groups—and therefore, a range of memories and countermemories—provides a more panoramic view of hegemonic systems and their effects on others who are similar and/or different than ourselves. In becoming aware of the “conditions and effects” of our belongings, we must “consider the political, social, and spiritual effects of our choices and practices” (Carrillo Rowe 43). The goal of Carrillo Rowe’s differential belonging—moving among different discourses—is the building of coalitional (inter)subjectivities2 for feminist ends: promoting openness and inclusion, resisting and overturning oppressive systems, and working collaboratively towards a more just world. Therefore, in co-memorative practice—catalyzed by this centennial year—we should consider the activities we choose to attend, where we place our bodies and what opportunities we create for ourselves to witness and engage through listening, participating, and/or dialoging across difference. The “Feminist Youth Voices” and other potentially transformative events described above are not useful if we stay home or choose other options. We must be frank with ourselves about where our longings motivate us to be.

The suffrage centennial may inspire practices and/or analyses of feminist co-memoration; however, special anniversaries are not required to engage this framework. Co-memorative practices can be applied to the (re)design of classroom activities promoting a revivification, re-engagement, and reassessment of history through reflective and inclusive practices that amplify counterstories, and therefore, engage critical imagination, and strategic contemplation. Even more broadly, co-memoration continues in our lives via everyday storytelling. Although seemingly mundane, sharing stories in random conversations is a powerful everyday means of remembering together. Listeners authentically engaged by “standing under” each others’ stories develop better relations through empathy (Ratcliffe 28). Tacking out to reflect over whose stories we hear can be useful for thinking about our perpetual re-membering or ongoing construction of our personal and shared narratives. What master narratives have seduced or ensnared us? And how can cultivation of differential belonging and better coalitional (inter)subjectivities disrupt those? Our daily worlds include echo chambers and we should be willing to step outside of them. Dialogue inspired by story-sharing can establish relationships across difference, new belongings that motivate us “to imagine life beyond our own skin” (Carrillo Rowe 35) and to “surrender ourselves to interstitial spaces” (197) between commonality and difference.

Co-Memoration as Hope-Fueled Struggle

This kairos of the centennial celebration of U.S. national women’s suffrage offers rich opportunities to re-examine how we remember, embody, and enact our public memories of the (ongoing) struggle for equality and justice. Through feminist co-memorative practices, spaces can be opened to radically transform ourselves through our memory-based communitas. And the critical imagination of “what might be” does not stop with questions about our narrative of gender equality. Members of co-memorative communities also should ask about biases towards whiteness, cis-gender identity, generational perspectives, able-bodiedness, and neurotypicality. Co-memorative events can be more inclusive through seeking out counterstories and by asking how divisions that create fragmentation can be respected and perhaps bridged. Further development of this co-memorative framework should consider additional ways it can be extended through Kirsch and Royster’s feminist rhetorical practices, including notions of social circulation and a “globalizing point of view” (Royster and Kirsch, Feminist). Memory is not constrained by national borders, and as communication technologies have made our daily interactions borderless, we must (re)consider how other national commemorative master narratives (e.g., “the War on Terror”) affect our intercultural and transnational relations.

None of this is going to be simple. If co-memorating seems easy, then surely we’re not doing it right because it is neither challenging our master narratives nor motivating us to reassess our (be)longings. Feminist co-memoration such as our suffrage celebrations should contribute to the broader project of what Sara Ahmed describes as Living a Feminist Life by making “everything into something that is questionable” (2). Reframing our commemorative practices—many of which are indeed sacred to our identity as “Americans”—is risky and demanding. It should be what Ahmed calls “sweaty work” (2), leaving us vulnerable and exposed (22), and clumsily “bumping into things” (166-167), including each other. Feminist co-memoration should require patience for not feeling “correct, consistent, or comfortable” (Carrillo Rowe 41). Glenn reminds us that “[f]eminist rhetorical studies create possibilities, not blueprints for an imagined utopian future” (193), so if the potential disruption of co-memoration seems daunting, then we can at least remember that we cannot expect to get it perfectly right. Our public memories, like ourselves, are a forever-ongoing and shared work-in-progress.


  1. The Central Park monument project caused justified controversy when its proposed design was revealed to include only Anthony and Stanton. Critics addressed how focusing only on those two suffrage leaders further reified the racist mythos of the movement’s history. In response to this outcry, Truth was added and the imagined meeting was conceived. Editorials from Martha S. Jones and from Ginia Bellafante elaborate on the problematic erasures of the monument’s original design.
  2. Carrillo Rowe uses the term “coalitional subject” or “coalitional subjectivity.” I amend it here to emphasize the dialectic inter-relationship between the individual subject and the group, yet maintain the parenthetical spelling both out of respect to Carrillo Rowe (not wanting to speak for her) and to indicate how I’m applying her concept in this essay.

Works Cited

  • About Us.2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative. Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.
  • Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.
  • Carrillo Rowe, Aimee. Power Lines: On the Subject of Feminist Alliances. Duke UP, 2008.
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