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It would seem like suffrage centennials should be free of controversies. What’s the issue anyway? We observe and celebrate an event, a movement, an individual every hundred years. The question has already emerged. What if these revered individuals weren’t perfect? What if they advocated an idea or said something that 100 years later that isn’t consistent now with our changing and transitional perspectives? One example is the move to take down statues dedicated to those who soiled their hands in terms of bloodshed or an offensive point of view? What about the Canadian suffrage activist Nellie McClung where a proposal to erect a statue in her honor caused push back because of her views on eugenics?
This raises the question. Is Inez Milholland, the US suffrage martyr, perfect? Should we honor her or recognize the sacrifice she made of giving her life for women’s right to vote if we find out that she may have said something 100 years ago that is today offensive or not suited for our ears today?
This isn’t an issue with Inez Milholland. However, the Canadian observance of its suffrage centennial was shadowed by such a controversy over Nellie McClung.
Some US scholars are advocating that it’s about time we know our entire history—the good and the bad and the ugly. This has been happening. For most of the 20th century the first wave of the women’s rights movement has been marginalized, buried, and dismissed as not important. Then women’s history scholars moved in during the latter part of the 20th century with brilliant scholarship about a subject still relatively few know very much about.
Women’s history moved to the forefront during the 1970s, and with it, a realization that people of yesterday are just as imperfect as they are today. We need to be aware of this. It’s time to acknowledge those who came before us and how they made tremendous sacrifices to pave the way. And if we insist on moral purity for all, this standard must be applied equally, across the board.
Check out the progress of the restoration project for the Quaker Meetinghouse in Farmington, NY. For more information, link to their web site.
“How Women Won the Vote” is a fabulous resource for events, special programs and celebrations. It is published by the National Women’s History Project. Copies can be ordered through the NWHP web site and store.