Nebraska History Museum opens women’s suffrage exhibit to celebrate centennial


Kamrin Baker

Samantha Weideman

The opening to the Votes for Women exhibit greets visitors with a big, yellow flag. Photo by Kamrin Baker/the Gateway

The Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln celebrated its opening of “Votes for Women: Nebraska’s Suffrage Story” ahead of the 19th Amendment’s upcoming 100th anniversary in 2020.

Nebraska ratified the 19th amendment Aug. 2, 1919 before women were finally allowed a federal vote in all elections after Aug. 26, 1920.

The exhibit opening, held Friday evening, featured a myriad of astute details.

Sophie Potter, a local cellist, greeted guests on the first floor with her music. Museum curators and staff members wore white and yellow, the cardinal colors of the suffrage movement. Guests delighted in finger sandwiches and dainty desserts while mingling with representatives from organizations like the ACLU of Nebraska and Nebraska Appleseed. Attendees could make their own campaign slogans, write about current issues that mattered to them—and most poetic of all—cast a ballot to share their opinion on present-day voting rights.

The third floor was packed with guests taking in the quotes, articles, photos and artifacts. Some took photos on the suffrage float. Others spoke with re-enactors portraying Dr. Mary B. White, Carrie Nation and Susan B. Anthony, who roamed the exhibit.

Photos grace the walls of the exhibit. Photo by Kamrin Baker/the Gateway

“I’m just eager to come back when there aren’t so many people so I can read everything,” said museum guest Julia Kennedy. “There’s so much to read and so much to take in.”

Attendees were enchanted by the displays and inspired to soak up all the information they could.

“They just did a phenomenal job with this exhibit,” said Ann Chalson, former president of the League of Women Voters of Greater Omaha. “They have so much interesting information, and so many great pictures. They’ve done such a great job of laying it out so you can follow it by the year, and so I just think they did a wonderful job.”

All artifacts in the exhibit were from the Nebraska History Museum’s collections. The donors?

Suffragists themselves.

Grace Richardson and Inez Philbrick, both active in the Omaha and Lincoln areas respectively, donated artifacts to the museum.

“They really understood the importance of what they were doing and what had happened, and saved things for posterity,” said Laura Mooney, Nebraska History Museum curator. “[They] thankfully had the forethought to give them to a museum so that they can be shared with visitors forever.”

The exhibit took about a year to bring together. Mooney did research in the archives to reconnect artifacts and timelines and find photos of specific suffragists.

Mooney’s favorite “oddball” piece of the exhibit was Edward Rosewater’s death mask.

“He was anti-suffrage,” Mooney said. “So, I think it’s kind of funny that we’ve added him to this exhibit. Suffrage prevailed and we get to include him as telling the story of why people were opposed.”

The museum contained historical iterations of the American flag, as well. Suffragists would add a star to the tapestry each time a state ratified the 19th Amendment.

For all intents and purposes, the exhibit opening was a party– a celebration of a shift in American history that happened not too long ago– a waving of a flag with all 50 stars.

“I think people really connect with the overall idea that everyone wants a voice,” Mooney said. “There’s still many issues relating to that today. When you really think about it, it wasn’t that long ago.”

Mooney said she hopes the exhibit inspires people to learn more about history, become inspired to participate in politics and fight for what they believe in. The gallery also included posters from recent women’s marches to connect timelines and show visitors that similar fights have continued into 2019.

Visitors wrote about issues that concerned them in present day Nebraska. Photo by Kamrin Baker/the Gateway

“Sometimes it takes a long time,” Mooney said. “Sometimes it takes a lot of people, and sometimes it’s not successful right at first.”

Mooney’s point is relevant to Nebraska’s suffrage history itself. The state was full of pro-suffrage media and progressive leaders early on in the fight for enfranchisement. However, after a legislative vote against suffrage in 1882, women suffragists had to work to regain their ground in Nebraska and later won the battle in 1919.

“My mother is turning 86 this year, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘women only had the vote for 14 years by the time she was born,’” Kennedy said. “This is really so relevant. It’s so recent that we got this right.”

At first, one might think that the suffragists from the early 1900s would be so surprised and honored to know their sashes and buttons, their lifelong struggles for equity, were adorned on the walls of a museum. It’s like wishing there was a time machine to run back and tell them that what they were doing was worth it all.

But then again, like Mooney said, they must have known.

“There’s still a lot of battles to be fought,” Kennedy said. “We have the vote, but we’re underrepresented in Congress. These women organized at a time when it was more difficult to organize, and yet it was important for themselves and their families. I feel hopeful to learn about what they went through and what we can do to make things better.”

In the entryway of the exhibit, quotes from famous and diverse women suffragist leaders careened across the wall.

“The best protection any woman can have… is courage,” said one quote from Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Another from Sojourner Truth read: “I am glad to see that men are getting their rights, but I want women to get theirs, and while the water is stirring, I will step in the pool.”

A localized quote pulled from a speech by Susan B. Anthony scrawled out, saying: “I did not believe it possible for me to get up so much hope of success of a popular vote of any state—but the women of Nebraska are so alive and so many of their newspapers come out for woman suffrage that I cannot help, like the old war horse—to be roused to life.”

Much like these groundbreaking women from a mere century ago, this exhibit proved that today’s Nebraskan women are vibrant with life, mobilized with courage and relentlessly ready to dive in.