Stepping Into the NWP Archives
By: Jennifer Krafchik, Deputy Director and Director of Strategic Initiatives
Over a decade ago, I first stepped into the National Woman’s Party’s library and archives, or the Florence Bayard Hilles Feminist Library, not knowing that it would be the beginning of a long career with this organization, first as an intern and eventually the Director of Collections and Deputy Director of the site. I was hired to delve into this unexplored collection of papers, images, textiles, and objects and begin to craft narratives about NWP members and the significance of the organization. I was fortunate to spend 6 full months conducting this research, and the more I explored, the more I understood – even as a young undergraduate with no real experience with historic collections – the extensive and unique nature of this collection.
The National Woman’s Party ceased to exist as a lobbying organization in 1997. Over the years, a number of staff, volunteers, and board members have worked to convert the archives of this prestigious woman suffrage and equal rights organization into a carefully catalogued and preserved collection that would forever tell the story of the NWP. However, when I began my work in 2001, there was still an air of the traditional club organization, where museum policies, and more specifically collection policies, were in the beginning stages and access to the collection was almost too easy.
When I stepped into the carriage house to see this vast cavern of books and cabinets, two large tables down the center of the room, I didn’t yet understand the treasures it held. There was barely a staff at that time and I was given the freedom (for better or worse) to explore the collection and define my objectives. I was a relatively inquisitive young woman and didn’t hesitate to take advantage of this autonomy. In one of the first boxes I opened (pulled from a random closet on the 2nd floor no less), I found the collection that would quickly become my passion project—the Nina Allender political cartoons. “The Coming of Winter” informed my thinking on the history of women’s rights in a way nothing I had seen prior ever did. I would soon learn that Allender rarely used color in her cartoons, and I was struck by her decision to do so. A copy of this cartoon hangs on my wall at home today.
But here is the interesting part: Allender’s cartoons were tucked away in a closet, in an unlabeled box, with no way of providing real access. This was the first collection I inventoried and cataloged. This was the first collection we raised money around to provide professional conservation. This was the first collection made available to the public through exhibits (in house, online, and traveling). And today, this collection is integral to the interpretation of the National Woman’s Party story.
Coming up on two decades later, the NWP is now at a place where large numbers of objects and artifacts have been catalogued, with those records and images added to the Past Perfect Online Database. Researchers regularly make use of the online catalog, and more importantly, the physical collection. The library has been the focal point for many scholars, documentarians, filmmakers, and students working on projects including National History Day, term papers, or dissertations. As we approach the centennial of the 19th amendment in 2020, more and more scholars and institutions are beginning to reach out to conduct research for books, exhibits, and films.
The exhibits have progressed from rooms filled with too much furniture and too little story, to carefully curated and themed galleries where cases filled with collection objects tell the story of the NWP’s work and legacy. We continue to develop traveling exhibits about Nina Allender’s influence, the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and the NWP’s tactics and strategies in an effort to share the collection and story with as many people as possible. Coupled with this, the NWP is eager to loan objects for special exhibitions. The NWP collection is well represented in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, and recently, we sent multiple banners, cartoons, photographs, and periodicals to be featured at the Brooklyn Museum for the AgitProp! exhibit.
Over the past two years, the Equal Rights Centennial Project has been a mechanism by which we have redistributed excess runs of the NWP magazine to scholars and institutions throughout the world. As of today, we have distributed more than 5,000 copies to 16 institutions, utilized the publication in teacher workshops and programs, and conducted research into the fascinating work that took place for women’s rights between 1923 and 1954. Over the next 3 years, the goal is to completely distribute the more than 20,000 copies that remain to universities, conservation schools, art schools, grade schools, and scholars to continue to encourage scholarship around the NWP and the collection, and creativity in thinking about preservation and access to historic collections. A personal/professional goal of mine is to see Equal Rights and its sister publication, The Suffragist, digitized, searchable, and widely available to NWP members by 2020.
As we consider the legacy of the National Woman’s Party, one thing that stands out about the founding members of the NWP is that they were also keenly aware of the historically valuable content they were creating. The library was a significant part of the NWP’s operations and member training for more than 40 years. Preservation and access to the collection is a part of that legacy. Prior to creating the library, the NWP donated the bulk of its organizational records to the Library of Congress, knowing that researchers would one day want to understand the inner workings of the women’s rights movement.
The Florence Bayard Hilles Feminist Library was the first library in the country dedicated to the story of the history of women in the United States and abroad. When it opened in 1943, women were still denied access to many places of higher learning, and the NWP had a vision to open a space that would provide resources to women about their own history. In the library, women could access books about women, by women, and for women. It was in this space that women trained to lobby congressmen for the Equal Rights Amendment, held salons to discuss issues important to the Party platform, and kept the historic collection perhaps not in perfect archival housing, but still with an eye on the power this collection would one day hold for so many men, women, and children. For more information on the history of the library, visit the NWP website: http://nationalwomansparty.org/learn/florence-bayard-hilles-feminist-library/
It seemed that any task the NWP set out to accomplish, it attacked with determination, and the copious collection of records in the Florence Bayard Hilles Feminist Library is no different. But to continue that tradition and strengthen our understanding of women’s history, it’s now our turn. Turning back to the task I started to tackle more than 15 years ago, it’s critical to preserve, utilize, and more deeply interpret this significant part of women’s history. I’m hoping that this American Archives Month, and with such momentous events in women’s history taking place daily, we can all be mindful about looking backward as we look ahead, and elevate the stories of those who came before. Whether by using the archival material we have here to help expand analysis in research topics or touring the museum through a special program that offers behind the scenes views of the archives, we all must do our part to help explore and illuminate the untold stories of the quest for equality by American women.