The National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites (NCWHS) has welcomed independent historian Denise Ireton, Ph.D., as project manager for the National Votes for Women Trail (NVWT). With more than a decade of experience in digital history and project management, Denise brings a passion for history matched by her expertise to the program. “I’m a social historian, so my experience with women and social movements ties in well with the National Votes for Women Trail,” she says.
In addition to joining the NVWT, Denise continues to contribute to the “Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States” and provides manuscript editing services to academic authors. Most recently, Denise managed two digital history archives: “Women and Social Movements—International, 1840-2010” and “Women and Social Movements in Modern Empires since 1820.” Her research interests explore the social history of internationally-minded, activist women during the first half of the 20th century, and women who established some of the first transnational nongovernmental organizations, including the International Woman Suffrage Alliance.
As the NVWT continues to have an inspiring impact in 2020, Denise reflects on her role, ideas for State Coordinators and how the NVWT will have a lasting legacy.
Describe your initial impressions as project manager and what you’re looking forward to.
I joined the NVWT in February 2020. A lot of my initial work has been getting the lay of the land and streamlining the dialogue among those involved (i.e. NCWHS, the Pomeroy Foundation, Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission). I put them all in conversation with the State Coordinators. It’s been fun to see how everyone has an important part in this collaborative effort and making the project a success.
One aspect of my job is to ensure that the roadside marker nominations submitted by the State Coordinators meet the guidelines and are well-researched and well-documented. The nominations must also match the larger national history promoted by the program, and the Research Team helps make these connections when necessary. I’m looking forward to being the individual who helps everyone be on the same page, expand the NVWT map and footprint of markers, and meet the needs of all the groups involved. I am focused on making this important project the best it can be.
How did your interest in studying and working in history begin?
When I was young, I did a class assignment to conduct an interview and write a report. I decided to interview my great-grandmother about her experiences during the Great Depression. It taught me a lot about my grandmother and also myself, especially my interest in history and historical experiences through the eyes of everyday folks. I was also fortunate to have a high school history teacher, Champ Walker, that made history exciting and fun. He created interactive demonstrations and complex setups for helping us understand the past. Names, dates, places, and events were important, but they were supplemental to the “why” of the history we were studying.
What inspired you to focus on social history and women’s suffrage?
My senior capstone project in college was a comparative analysis of the British and German suffrage movements during the Great War. The project introduced me to women and social movements, and it helped frame my graduate work. It wasn’t until graduate school that I found social history, but I do think it traces back to that interview with my grandmother. I am inspired by the stories of everyday individuals, and I find history through their eyes to be central to how we understand the past.
You’re working with a team of four historians. Tell us about their roles with the NVWT.
This is a great team of researchers making a wide range of contributions. They are assisting us at all phases of the nomination process, from the idea stage to completed nomination packets. They help identify potential marker sites and topics; they edit marker text for clarity and significance; and, when need, they supplement primary source evidence. Each state has been assigned to a researcher, and that researcher is learning about the markers and suffrage history in those respective states.
There’s a variety of material submitted by each of our State Coordinators and it’s useful to have researchers with different perspectives so that we can develop a full picture of the nationwide piece of it in terms of representation and the NVWT story. As you can imagine, this varies widely, but my goal is to get the Research Team generating the best possible outcomes in each state. Everyone brings an array of specialties to the project. The Research Team includes:
- Ann Pfau, Ph.D., is an independent historian specializing in gender and urban renewal. She has extensive project experience, including with the Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony at Rutgers University.
- Erin Hegberg is a historical archaeologist, who has worked in cultural resource management throughout the Southwest since 2004, including assessments of historic structures, National Register of Historic Places evaluations, and historic contexts.
- Jodi Oaks works as a reference librarian. She transitioned to the NVWT Research Team after working as a women’s suffrage research consultant for the Pomeroy Foundation from October 2019 to February 2020.
- Laura Warren Hill, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies. Her research focuses on the experiences of men and women engaged in social movements throughout the twentieth century, in particular Civil Rights and Black Power.
What are your recommendations for generating the best possible NVWT marker nomination?
The best marker nominations engage the local narrative within the wider state and national suffrage history. We want to get a full picture of the individuals or events proposed to be commemorated, as well as a deeper understanding of the history of the site or location. We look for proposed marker inscriptions that are specific (i.e. a date, a specific person, a location’s significance) and how that piece of the local ties to the larger, national context for the road to the 19th Amendment.
For example, you can research state suffrage groups and identify local connections to individuals or groups. This information may be in a newsletter, a publication from a national conference, a state report relating to women’s suffrage. There are accounts from mainstream suffrage leaders. Newspapers can also serve as another important source for finding local, as well as national coverage. Those sources are key.
What are your recommendations to State Coordinators for navigating the nomination process during the present pandemic?
The NVWT is adapting to the present. We are doing our best to continue business as usual and there are clear ways of how it’s affecting how we work with nominations. I encourage State Coordinators and local partners to continue to present nominations, even when land use permission is difficult to acquire or dedication ceremonies cannot be scheduled. Land use permission letters can be added later. We are doing our best to review and process submissions so that we are ready once the pandemic can come to a manageable close.
Another pandemic issue has been accessing primary sources. The Research Team has needed to get creative when sources are only available at closed libraries and archives. I am sure State Coordinators and local partners are facing similar issues. When a source is elusive, my advice is to ensure it is cited in the primary source list, including where it is located. We can continue to process the nomination and look for another source to support the claim or alter the marker text to work around the missing source. The Research Team is doing our best to continue despite the pandemic limitations, and I encourage State Coordinators and local partners to reach out to us if they are faced with these kinds of limitations. We are here to help.
Why is emphasizing public engagement with women’s suffrage history so important?
I think right now across the county and across the world people are looking at their political leaders and who is in power, whether it’s the local or national level, and how they are reacting in the pandemic. There’s a question of democracy and how leaders are chosen, and this civil discussion is highlighted because of the situation we are going through.
Women’s suffrage ties into that and questions of democracy and how they have utilized access to politics and how they have demanded change. All of that is highlighted across the NVWT, showing the value of the right to vote and the history of voting rights. The NVWT highlights why individuals, especially women, historically demanded suffrage. Today, we still have conversations about political rights and access to those rights. The historical moment with the 19th Amendment was not an end point. It was a larger piece of how these things change over time and are relevant to the present.
Where would you like to see more representation of women’s suffrage history?
I would like to see labor and working-class suffragists, as well as suffragists of color. These groups came to the suffrage effort with different perspectives and experiences than those in the mainstream movement. We are doing our best to represent that on the NVWT. We need to look at how, where and why the suffrage movement mattered to these individuals and groups. They were marginalized, but influential to the movement. I think the NVWT can demonstrate these differing perspectives by exploring the narratives of working-class suffragists and suffragists of color.
What are you looking forward to about the NVWT in 2020? In the future?
I’m looking forward to not only seeing how the roadside markers unfold and where we put them and all the great material coming from our State Coordinators, but also I am excited to be a part of that. There’s also an opportunity for collaboration with other centennial projects and working with other efforts to help commemorate the 19th Amendment. It’s all part of an exciting 2020.
It will be fun to see how this project continues and how people will continue to ask these questions and about women’s history sites and social movements. This conversation is just starting, and the centennial is a way to looking to the future and in new ways.