Skip to main content

Celebrating the Centennial: Q&A with Coline Jenkins

Coline Jenkins (second from left) at the Josephine Henry NVWT marker dedication, Versailles, Kentucky.

“This is the time. This is the year of the national centennial of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This is big.” That’s the message Coline Jenkins has for everyone involved with the National Votes for Women Trail (NVWT). The great-great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Coline heads up the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Trust and is vice president of Monumental Women, the organization making the Women’s Rights Pioneers monument in New York City’s Central Park a reality.

From Convention Days in Seneca Falls, to the Rose Bowl parade, to attending one of the first suffrage marker dedications, Coline also has been using her advocacy across the country to spread the word about the NVWT. During a recent trip to Seneca Falls, Coline caught up with us about her passion for women’s suffrage history, her family heritage, and the benefits of roadside markers.

Do you recall a time in your life when you first felt the full impact of your family’s legacy? How did it shape you?

When I grew up – like any child – my family was my world. That world was normal to me. For instance, my mother was an architect. Her architectural drawing board, T-square, and triangle were my toys. I designed my own houses with them. My playground was often her building sites. My grandmother, a frequent visitor to our home, was the first female civil engineer at Cornell University, graduating in 1905. As a child, mom and grandma were activists, mothers, and businesswomen, all in the same breath. They were very busy – they were my role models. Later in life, I realized they were not a product of spontaneous combustion, but walked in the footsteps of the women before them. For instance, my grandmother recalled sitting in the lap of her grandmother, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, while being taught the “rights and wrongs of women.”

At the age of 17, I visited Seneca Falls, N.Y., and I saw a roadside marker in front of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s house. That roadside marker was put up by the New York State Department of Education in 1932. Now, 50 years later, I’ve come full circle. I’m following the markers funded by the Pomeroy Foundation on the National Votes for Women Trail. It was so important for me to see that marker in Seneca Falls. In a nutshell, the marker gave me a sense of the significance of that house; that something important occurred there. In many ways, my life has been piecing together these nuggets of history that make a big mosaic of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s life. That’s the same as studying women’s history or putting up roadside markers. It becomes a big mosaic of a national social movement. How do you go from one person to a social movement? Well, that’s the story told by the National Votes for Women Trail. It’s creating a bigger narrative that the public can access across the country.

In what ways can communities and the public benefit from NVWT roadside markers?

Edith P. Mayo, Curator Emeritus of The Smithsonian, National Museum of American History, describes the ratification of the 19th Amendment as “the greatest bestowal of democratic freedoms in the history of the United States.” That’s so powerful. Just consider the demographics. Women are 51 percent of the population, who, in 1920, were protected by the U.S. Constitution’s right to vote! So roadside markers that call attention to “the battles” fought in this revolution are essential to understand: “We the People … form a more perfect Union …” I love it!

We must recognize that men and women designed and built this nation. Of course, there is gross disparity in public spaces when recognizing women’s contributions. But you are – we are – changing that with the NVWT. Remember that Americans love their cars and travel the highways and byways of America. Now the historic markers will grab their attention. What is more fun than a road trip to our roots!

What tips do you have for getting younger generations involved?

After seven years of working to place the first statue of real women in Central Park, it’s clear to me that one of the most dynamic and highly organized groups you can work with are the Girl Scout troops. They are energetic. They are media magnets. And the girls have generously donated a portion of the money they raised from their cookie sales to the statue campaign. We are also thankful for the input the CEO of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, Meredith Maskara, who serves on the board of Monumental Women and leads 31,000 Girl Scouts!

We have also seen how Girl Scouts are making a direct impact on the National Votes for Women Trail. For example, Elizabeth Solie, who is a Girl Scout in Kentucky, created a lovely series of notecards inspired by their state’s suffrage leaders. Girl Scouts in Nevada have also been involved. Whenever you host your marker unveiling, you should call your local Girl Scouts!

The roadside markers themselves also serve as educational tools for future generations. If you’re concerned about civics education and civic engagement, that’s exactly what roadside markers foster.

You’ve been to many marker unveilings over the years. What are your recommendations for generating excitement?

I say, “Strike while the iron is hot.” It will be a media frenzy in 2020 in celebration of Votes for Women! All eyes are on you. We’ve already experienced it with the Central Park statue, where we have been drenched in national and international media coverage. Use the media to leverage your message. Connect your message to millions of citizens. Dedication ceremonies should be coalitions of community groups, such as League of Women Voters, politicians on the campaign trail, historical societies, student groups, town citizens, and your governor. Most important, make sure to invite your local public television stations too. They are hungry for news stories. Of course, social media inspires us. Let’s go viral!

I will always remember the 1932 roadside marker in front of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton house and think about how our cause will impact future generations for decades and centuries to come. Cast aluminum roadside signs hold up well.

A wonderful side benefit from jumping on the bandwagon is the people you will meet. I have known Judith Wellman, Marsha Weinstein and Nancy Brown for decades. They are the finest and most committed people I know – thoroughly dedicated to women’s rights and its history.  Through them, I constantly hear glowing remarks about you, the state coordinators. Never let frustration or obstacles stand in your way. Persist! As the suffragists said, “Failure is impossible.”

Looking ahead, I can’t wait to start my road trips to your state to meet you at your marker unveilings. Our victory of 250 markers nationwide is a fine tribute to the women upon whose shoulders we stand.

You rode on the float celebrating women’s suffrage in the Rose Bowl Parade – and the float won “Best theme.”  What was that like?

It was one of the high points of my life being part of the Rose Bowl Parade. I had the honor of riding the Women’s Suffrage Float with the “Bouquet of Descendants.” The “bouquet” included the relatives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Ida B. Wells and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Following the float were 100 suffragists marching in white attire, with sashes and placards; a replica of the Statue of Liberty towered above us – all of this to the song, “Girl on Fire,” by Alicia Keys. The 1,000,000 spectators along the parade route erupted in tears and cheers. When unveiling your marker – have a parade!

Do you have any additional suggestions for getting in the spirit of the Centennial?

I recently read an article that people in Oklahoma were looking for suffrage artifacts. That made me think, let’s have some fun with this! One of the most popular shows is “Antiques Roadshow.”  In your town or city, start a treasure hunt for artifacts in the attic. Can you find diaries, letters, buttons, sashes, and banners…? Bring them to the unveiling of the markers. There is nothing like the power of the voice and the power of the place. These treasures are the weapons of the world’s greatest revolution.