Voices for a More Complete Women’s History

Education, Information Access, Social Justice

By: Lisa Rand

This year many libraries will be marking the anniversary of the 19th Amendment. The anniversary presents an opportunity for uplifting and highlighting voices that have gone mostly unheard. Can we make sure that our women’s history and right to vote displays are not whitewashed and sanitized? If you are planning programs, there are resources and ideas on the ALA Programming Librarian website. With LibGuides and other resources at hand, we can strive to make sure that library visitors have access to the fullest possible picture of the suffrage story.

Equity of access to libraries should include making sure that all people are made welcome in our spaces. Inclusive storytelling can be a piece of our hospitality. Consider what impact it might have for visitors to view a display about the struggle for the vote and only see stories about upper class white women. Collection development, displays, and programs, whether self-directed, staff-led, or led by guest presenters, can and must reflect diverse life experiences. We can take care to remember that it was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that many people received the right to vote.

Women Suffrage Banner 1917 Harris & Ewing Photograph Collection of the LOC

Unsung, forgotten, overlooked, untold, and lesser-known are some of the search terms that bring up articles highlighting the women often missing from our bookshelves. If your collections need updating, this is a great time to do so. There are numerous new releases related to the suffrage movement that aim to fill in some of the gaps, eliminating excuses for the absence of diverse activists on our shelves. 

The Library of Congress exhibit Shall Not Be Denied runs through September. Of particular interest is the portion of the exhibit titled More to the Movement. Here curators have highlighted ongoing scholarship and stories of activists who were not white. How might we ensure public library patrons and students are aware of the available resources? How might we highlight and feature these important stories that have been omitted in our classrooms and overlooked by major publishing houses?

Valiant women of the vote with Statue of Liberty, women’s history month logo from National Women’s History Alliance © NWHA 2019
National Women’s History Alliance © NWHA 2019

When presenting history, we should not be afraid to tell hard stories. The 19th Amendment centennial can be an opportunity to celebrate even as it points toward the work for equality that still needs to be done. What about pairing a history presentation with a discussion of a contemporary voting rights story? An ideal title might be Carol Anderson’s One Person, No Vote: How voter suppression is destroying our democracy

Many of our libraries have experience moderating hard conversations. Let us not miss this opportunity for rich dialogue about our history and our future.

Lisa Rand

Lisa M. Rand is a youth services librarian in southeastern Pennsylvania. She exercises her commitment to equity and access for everyone by serving on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. Lisa has studied at Simmons University and Kent State University. Whenever possible she travels, visiting libraries and walking in the footsteps of favorite fictional characters. Find her on Twitter @lisa_m_rand.

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