Judith Wellman, Ph.D., professor emerita of history at the State University of New York at Oswego, has spent more than four decades as a leading scholar on women’s rights history. She has brought that passion and deep knowledge to her role as chair of the National Votes for Women Trail (NVWT) Advisory Committee. In addition to her work in higher education, Judy is principal investigator at Historical New York Research Associates, where she specializes in historic sites relating to women’s rights, African American life and the Underground Railroad.
With the recent announcement that the deadline for submitting NVWT marker nominations has been extended to January 15, 2021, we caught up with Judy to reflect on the incredible efforts to date and how that will carry forward into the New Year and beyond. To Judy, the centennial of the 19th Amendment is just the beginning. She says the markers being installed now to commemorate the road to the 19th Amendment represent a starting point for more research, uncovering more history and telling more stories about the fight for women’s voting rights.
Why is the National Votes for Women Trail important to you?
People may not realize it, but the 19th Amendment enfranchised more American voters at once than any other legislative act. Twenty-five million people were admitted to the electorate. The National Votes for Women Trail was developed to help highlight that history. This comprehensive, nationwide project drives that point home. It takes our understanding from an abstract level and turns it into something that’s concrete. We must remember that we are talking about real people with real experiences. The National Votes for Women Trail is an enormously important way to make their untold or little-known stories a reality for all of us.
What new insights have you gained from your involvement with the NVWT?
One of the things this project has done for me – and a lot of the scholars on the advisory committee who already knew so much – is that we realized the Suffrage Movement was rooted not only in the more traditional understanding of the women’s suffrage story, but there were so many other important things happening. For example, about 1/3 of the National Votes for Women Trail markers relate to a person of color, and who were still not recognized with voting rights with the passing of the 19th Amendment.
I learned about Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, an Asian American suffragist, who among her many actions, prominently took to horseback during a New York City suffrage parade in 1912. Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, a member of the Native American Ojibwa community in North Dakota, fought for women’s suffrage and civil rights for Native Americans. Even after passage of the 19th Amendment, state laws in many cases excluded Native Americans. In my home state of New York, suffrage leader Mary Talbert served as president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and pushed forward anti-lynching campaigns through the NAACP. Talbert was a member of the historic Michigan Avenue Baptist Church in Buffalo. In Rochester, NY, Hester Jeffrey fought for women’s rights and had a strong friendship with Susan B. Anthony. The Memorial AME Zion Church commemorates Jeffrey.
All these stories break down stereotypes. Suffrage leaders from all walks of life were personal friends and supporters of each other. It brings the story of suffrage away from that type of mythical reform movement and places it in greater historical context. It asks who was really involved and how it happened and how those stories and messages help us move forward in our own quest for democracy.
What influences helped shape your scholarship and passion for women’s suffrage history?
I was strongly influenced by my grandmother who was very interested in history. I was brought up to believe that we were all part of this great American democratic experiment. It wasn’t until I grew up and was in my 20s when I began to understand that this is not everyone’s experience. I saw that the Suffrage Movement was trying to actualize that ideal form of democracy that’s expressed in the Declaration of Independence – that we’re all created equal. It speaks about who we are as people in both the past and present. To work as a democracy, all citizens of this country must feel respected and have a voice; a voice through voting. This idea isn’t dead. It’s very much alive, especially through this history.
What histories and what stories need and require more attention from everyone?
We all recognize the significant role and impact of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth. There are also the millions of Americans who worked at the grassroots level across the country. It’s not a simple story of achieving success. It’s complicated and detailed and involves people and communities across the United States. The Women’s Suffrage Movement was the largest, non-violent movement for social change ever in United States history. In New York State, for example, suffragists in 1894 pushed for a clause in the state’s constitution for women’s voting rights. Their petition gained 600,000 signatures (a quarter of the adult population), but lost. They did it again in 1915, but lost again. On a third run, they gathered more than 1,000,000 signatures and held some 20,000 meetings. In 1917, New York finally became the first state east of the Mississippi to gain women’s suffrage.
Local people influenced the suffrage movement and were influenced by it. We need to pay attention to this powerful story. What this history leaves us, and me, is a message about what we can do through our individual choices.
What can people do to stay engaged and carry forward this exciting momentum into 2021 and beyond?
The National Votes for Women Trail database currently features more than 1,700 different historic sites across the country. It’s all crowdsourced data, so if anyone has sites they would like to add to the database, you can. At nvwt.org, there’s a form you fill out. This is a great project for young people to get involved. There’s also lots of opportunities for engaging online and pinpointing local suffrage locations.
There’s still time to submit a nomination for a National Votes for Women Trail marker funded by the Pomeroy Foundation. The deadline has been extended to Friday, January 15, 2021. The support of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission has also helped to make this project possible. The markers are part of a much larger effort to tell people what happened in their communities. These markers will last a long time, and we are exceptionally careful, as is the Pomeroy Foundation to make sure that everything on the marker text is based in primary source materials.
This is an immensely awe-inspiring project and it’s an honor to be associated with it. We are so grateful to the hundreds of people across the country who have been working hard on the National Votes for Women Trail. There has been thousands and thousands of hours spent locally conducting research. None of where we are today could have happened without those efforts. I am awestruck by the good work that everyone has done, including the scholarly research of the advisory committee.
What is your hope for the legacy of the NVWT?
The National Votes for Women Trail has a goal of featuring at least 2,020 entries in its database related to women’s suffrage by the end of this year. Even beyond that, people will continue to add to the database since this work and research is such an ongoing experience. People will continue to find new materials, new records. Look at it this way. If you go and stand in front of a National Votes for Women Trail marker in your own local neighborhood, you’re not looking at the end; it’s just the beginning. Educators can share this information with their students. Tourists can go and visit these suffrage sites. People can be reminded of their own ancestors and wonder what was going on in their communities. This is a window to the beginning of understanding more about women’s suffrage history. The Pomeroy markers create a legacy for future generations, which will live on beyond any of us and create a continuity among the past, present and future for those who come after us.