State museum presenting ‘Votes for Women’

Exhibit commemorates 100th anniversary of women earning right to vote in N.Y.
This image from 1915 shows a meeting of the Cayuga County Women’s Suffrage Movement.
This image from 1915 shows a meeting of the Cayuga County Women’s Suffrage Movement.

From Susan B. Anthony’s alligator purse to Bella Abzug’s hat, the New York State Museum’s new exhibit on the history of women’s suffrage covers just about everything.

“Votes for Women: Celebrating New York’s Suffrage Centennial,” commemorating the 100th anniversary of women earning the right to vote in New York, will be up in the museum’s West Hall Gallery on Saturday and remain on display through May 13, Mother’s Day. The exhibit was put together by museum curators Jennifer Lemak and Ashley Hopkins-Benton. The two women were outside of their academic wheelhouse — Lemak’s area of expertise is 20th century African-American history and Hopkins-Benton has focused on American sculpture – but they both thoroughly enjoyed immersing themselves in the history of the women’s suffrage movement.

The two also worked on an exhibition catalog that is available at the museum gift shop for $29.95. Here’s some of what they had to say.

Jennifer Lemak is an Elmira native who has been with the museum for 13 years.

What will people see at the exhibit?

“They’re going to see a lot of artifacts. We’ve borrowed from over 45 different institutions and private collections across the state. What I think is very exciting is that we have a lot of personal items from women who were in the suffrage movement. We have Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s writing desk, we have suffrage convention ribbons that belonged to Harriet May Mills of Syracuse and we are borrowing Susan B. Anthony’s famous alligator purse that she would travel with all over the country. It’s on loan to us for just four weeks from the Susan B. Anthony House and Museum in Rochester. It’s one of their most famous and important artifacts.”

How did you break up the exhibit?

“The exhibition is split into three chronological sections. The first section begins in 1848 to 1890. The second section is 1890 to 1920, when the 19th amendment was passed, and then the third section is 1920 to the present day. Speaking to that time period, we have borrowed one of Bella Abzug’s hats and dresses from the Museum of the City of New York. She was known for always wearing a hat. The most recent items we have are from some of the women’s marches that happened around the state in 2016.”

Do you have a favorite suffragette?

“If I had to pick one it would have been Alice Morgan Wright of Albany, and that’s another one of the great personal artifacts we have. She was imprisoned for participating in some of the British suffrage demonstrations, and we have the little ribbon and medal she was awarded for being in prison in London. It was given to her by Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the British suffragette movement.”

Ashley Hopkins-Benton is a Catskill native and Kinderhook resident who has been with the museum for five years.

What surprised you about all the research you did?

“This is definitely a new area for me, but also very much a new passion. I think it’s been special because it is still so relevant, and at times both surprising and depressing that the conversations these women were having in 1848, that they thought getting the vote would help resolve, are still things we’re talking about today.”

What are some of the most interesting artifacts on display?

“We are especially excited to have the Bloomer costume from the Cortland Historical Society. In 1851, the Bloomer costume was introduced to the women’s rights movement. It had appeared in certain other reform movements before that, but for a very brief period a lot of the leaders of the women’s rights movement adopted it. They were excited to have this outfit that allowed them more freedom of movement and kind of outwardly showed their views. But very quickly they realized it was drawing more attention to what they were wearing and  taking away from their message, so it didn’t last very long. There are only a few known examples, so we’re very lucky to have it here.”

What is the oldest artifact you have on display?

“We do have a report of the convention from 1848 that is from the New York State Library collection, but predating that are a couple of the other reform documents. We have a report from an anti-slavery convention and we have a temperance newspaper from 1832. One of things we discovered when we were planning for this is that a lot of people tell the New York story started in 1848. But there was a lot of discussion and agitation, especially within the temperance and abolition movement talking about women’s rights already before 1848.”

Was there some competition between reform movements?

“There was some conflict, especially after the Civil War, when you had discussions about ‘Can we get African-American suffrage and women’s suffrage passed at the same time, or do we have to push one through first?’ Certainly, which movement you were more aligned with determined which one you pushed for happening first. But early, before 1848, within the abolition movement especially, women were out on the speaking circuit, touring, having organizational roles, and that started questions about, ‘How can women be involved in a movement?’ In some cases they had to start their own female abolition society, and in other cases there were arguments about whether or not to let women come to the meeting.”

‘Votes for Women: Celebrating New York’s Suffrage Centennial’

WHERE: New York State Museum, 222 Madison Ave., Albany
WHEN: Exhibit opens Saturday and runs through May 13; museum hours are 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
MORE INFO: (518) 474-5877,

Categories: Life and Arts

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