History, Up Close and Personal

By Caitlin Gullickson

I love a good brunch. I always have, long before I was an age where mimosas were on the menu. There’s something so perfect about a long-drawn out breakfast on a weekend. Add in some close friends and you have a recipe for success.

But on August 22, 2015, I played hostess for a special brunch – my dear friend Chitra Panjabi had just become a citizen of the United States. If you are unfamiliar with the immigration process, I highly recommend reading Dante’s Inferno. (While reading, pay particular attention to the sections on Purgatory.)

cupcakes

What could make this day any more special? It was also just before Women’s Equality Day, August 26th. Since 1971, the President of the United States marks August 26 in commemoration of the day in 1920 that the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution — granting women equal voting rights — was certified into law.

brunch table

Instilled in me as a youngster was the notion that history’s grasp on the living was tight and ever-present. My great-grandmother immigrated to the United States just a few years before the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Both of my grandfathers served in World War II. And my mother (an archivist) was an early subscriber to Ms. Magazine, an edition she gifted me a few years back when we had the opportunity to meet Gloria Steinem – who happily autographed it for us. (I might add that she is/was the proprietor of some mementos in the Sewall Belmont’s exhibits. See pictures.)

That ERA bracelet? My mom had one, too – until I “borrowed” it and wore it throughout middle school. It currently resides in my jewelry box.

ERA bracelet

campaign buttons

 

One thing that growing up around all this history has taught me is the value of an item, no matter how small. The tactile connection to history by holding something – anything – of significance creates an electrifying current. But it’s never just about the item which is, after all, just a “thing”. Without context it is impersonal, essentially meaningless. It is the story behind the item that gives it value. And its people — ordinary people leading extraordinary lives and taking revolutionary chances — who provide the stories.

Thanks to my mother, I’ve always loved history. She also taught me the importance of civic duty, and did so by taking me to vote with her. This started when I was still too small to even reach the levers. To this day, changing my voter registration is the first thing I do when I move.

Women did not get the right to vote easily – it was a long, hard fight. In 1848, the document produced by the Seneca Falls Convention was the first formal demand for women’s suffrage. Suffragists picketed the White House during World War I, a move that did not particularly endear the movement to the American public. Many picketers were arrested and participated in a hunger strike while in prison, leading to force feedings.

So the ratification of the 19th amendment is something to celebrate, even 95 years later. But we can’t overlook one very hard truth: Not all women obtained access to the ballot box in 1920. Women of color were often actively excluded to placate the racist sensibilities of some white suffragists. The introduction of Jim Crow laws after the Civil War kept most black women and men from voting. It wasn’t until passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that the right to vote was extended to all adult citizens.

As an American, this is my history. Hiding it doesn’t change it. Ignoring it doesn’t erase the impact it’s left on us to this day. Our idols are imperfect.

It’s a constant reminder to be better. To be a better activist, a more conscientious person, a thoughtful global citizen. So I read history. Smell it. When I get the chance, touch it – truly interact with it. Learn from it. Appreciating what has come before does not stop me from trying to make sure that the history we are creating is better.

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So if you ever Washington, D.C., I encourage you to visit the Sewall Belmont House and Museum. Maybe you’ll be lucky and the library will be open. Definitely take a moment to appreciate the architecture.

WED open house

And if you’re really lucky, you’ll get the chance to interact with some memorabilia. At first, you might think you’re just getting a whiff of old crumbling paper. But it’s just the scent of history. I hope it inspires you as much as it does me.

 

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