A new exhibition at the Maine State Museum in Augusta examines a century of history associated with women gaining the right to vote in America in 1920. The century under review in “Women’s Long Road – 100 Years to the Vote” isn’t the time that has passed since women won that right, but the 100-year effort that was required to make it happen in Maine, dating to 1820 when Maine adopted a constitution granting voting rights to “every male citizen … age of twenty-one years and upwards, excepting paupers; persons under guardianship, and Indians not taxed …”
At least one lesson from the exhibition is undeniable: Women (and others) have been discriminated against for a long time and fought hard for every inch.
Opening Saturday, “Women’s Long Road” tells the story of the suffrage struggle in Maine and the persistent women who spent decades educating their communities, hosting debates and demonstrations and lobbying lawmakers, not just for the right to vote, but for the right to own property, to control their own money and to have a will.
At least 28 times between 1854 and 1919, women petitioned the Maine Legislature for the right to vote. Twenty-seven times, they lost. In 1917, two years before they finally won that right from state lawmakers, their petition was voted down by a crushing two-to-one margin.
The Maine suffrage history is framed in the context of Maine’s bicentennial of 2020 and the centennial of the 19th Amendment granting women the national right to vote, adopted as part of the U.S. Constitution, happening in August 2020. Maine ratified the amendment in November 1919, becoming the 19th state to do so.
World War I “finally pushed the edge,” said Candace Kanes, the exhibition’s co-curator and a Brunswick historian. “Other countries gave women the right to vote before the U.S. did, and there were a lot of economic and social changes.”
And mounting political pressure too, said Sheila McDonald, deputy director of the Maine State Museum and exhibition co-curator. Women successfully demonstrated at the White House in 1917 to pressure President Woodrow Wilson. A similar public campaign a few years earlier resulted in negative publicity for the suffrage movement, which was seen as being unsympathetic in the context of the war.
“Women’s Long Road” is told mostly with two-dimensional objects, including photographs, letters, political cartoons, posters, banners, flags and other similar items. The exhibition strongly links the suffrage movement with the abolitionist and temperance movements, and uses stories of strength, commitment and rebellion over time, from before the Civil War until after World War I.
It tells stories, large and small. There’s that of Hannah Johnston Bailey of Winthrop, who helped her husband with his floor-covering business. When he died and she took over the business, she refused to pay taxes, arguing that because she could not vote, she was not represented in Augusta. She was well-versed in American history and knew not to settle for taxation without representation. She was nationally active as an advocate for peace, temperance and suffrage and died in Portland in 1923 at age 84, living long enough to witness women winning the right to vote.
In 1857, two women from the Ellsworth area, Ann Frances Greely and Charlotte Hill, hosted activist, reformer and suffragist Susan B. Anthony at Whiting Hall as part of a national speaker series that included abolitionist Wendell Phillips and feminist writer Caroline Healy Dall. In 1868, Rockland sisters Lavinia and Lucy Snow began the city’s first equal rights association, and Bangor resident Deborah Knox Livingston, a paid campaigner for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, traveled 20,000 miles speaking and raising money for the Maine campaign in 1917.
Underlying all of these stories is the recognition that change took a long time and the suffrage movement sustained generations of failure. It also required a reordering of social norms, Kanes said.
“Not just in the United States but everywhere, people believed, and many women believed, that men and women were inherently different. Men were meant to do certain things, and women were not meant to do those things but were meant to do other things,” Kanes said. “If you have that system for a long time, people get used to it, and people get used to the power they have and the positions they have, and it threatens them when it starts to change.”
An untold story but one inferred in “Women’s Long Road” is the century that has followed the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Women have had the right to vote for 100 years, but have had to fight for every inch for everything they’ve earned since.
WHERE: Maine State Museum, 230 State St., Augusta
WHEN: Opens Saturday, on view through Jan. 25
OPENING EVENTS: Free admission 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, with performance by Maine Girls Chorus at 11 a.m.
REGULAR HOURS: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
ADMISSION: $2 to $3, family maximum $10
INFO: mainestatemuseum.org or (207) 287-2301