30 July 2019 | Brigit Katz | Smithsonian
In 1922, the American suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt traveled to Italy to help prepare for the upcoming Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Rome.
Back home, Catt was a towering figure of the women’s rights movement; she had succeeded Susan B. Anthony as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and played a pivotal role in securing the adoption of the 19th Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote. Catt was an efficient and effective organizer—and she was not entirely impressed with the way things were taking shape in Rome.
“A more unpromising place for a Congress I never saw,” she recorded in her diaries, describing the venue where the event was due to take place. “The Italian women could not comprehend our disapproval.”
If Italy’s suffrage campaigners failed to measure up to Catt’s expectations, at least the country’s scenic splendors did not disappoint. The Bay of Naples filled her with “such a thrill of pleasure.” The mountains and vineyards that surrounded the blue Mediterranean were “[w]onderful, amazing.” In Pompeii, Catt noted with interest, there were “houses of prostitution with a phallus as their sign.”
Catt’s diaries offer fascinating insight into the work and life of a women’s rights pioneer. They are among a trove of suffrage papers that the Library of Congress is hoping to transcribe—with the public’s help.
Nearly 16,000 pages of letters, speeches, newspaper articles and other suffragist documents are now available on By the People, a crowdsourcing platform launched by the library in 2018. The project seeks to make the library’s collections fully word searchable and easier to read, for both scholars and lay historians alike.
Over the past year, By the People has introduced a number of “campaigns” calling on volunteers to transcribe the digitized papers of Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, Walt Whitman and others. The suffrage campaign coincides with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which was passed by Congress in June 1919 and ratified the following year.
Library experts hope that by transcribing these documents, volunteers will not only help make suffrage materials more accessible, but also “engage with our collections and feel a connection with the suffragists,” as Elizabeth Novara, an American women’s history specialist and curator of a new suffragist exhibition at the library, puts it.
Anyone can participate in the transcription effort. Once a given page has been completed, it must be approved by at least one registered volunteer before it is integrated into the library’s main website. “It’s a consensus model,” explains Lauren Algee, By the People’ senior innovation specialist, “similar to Wikipedia.” Users are encouraged to tag documents, with the goal of supplying additional information that would not be captured by the transcription.
“I can’t easily tell you what’s in a lot of these papers,” Algee says. “There are scholars who have looked through every page of them and could read off … a list of all the stories that are included. But I can’t easily search for those things. Having volunteers delve into these papers, it’s going to bring more of those stories to light.”
Awaiting transcription are documents pertaining to five suffrage leaders, among them Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two giants of the movement. The documents attest not only to their working relationship, but also to the intimacies that existed between them and their colleagues.
In 1896, for instance, Anthony wrote to Stanton’s daughter Harriot Stanton Blatch, who was also a women’s rights crusader, to express her condolences for the death of Blatch’s young daughter.
“[M]y heart’s sympathies go out to you each all—and your dear mother—how her mother’s heart is aching,” Anthony wrote.
“[D]arling,” she added later, “I … wanted to tell you I am grieving with you.”
Library experts also took care to include the materials relating to lesser-known reformers, like Catt and Anna E. Dickinson, a charismatic activist and actor who enthralled the media—not always in ways that she welcomed. Dickinson became a celebrity during the Civil War, when she toured the country campaigning for Republican Party candidates, and gained further attention for her mountain-climbing escapades; she scaled Colorado’s Pikes Peak, among other summits. In 1891, Dickinson’s sister forcibly committed her to the State Hospital for the Insane in Danville, Pennsylvania. She was soon released, and subsequently sued both family members and newspapers for their coverage of the distressing incident.
“Later this year, we’ll publish Dickenson’s family correspondence and personal correspondence … which contain more information on her hospitalization,” Algee says.
The papers of Mary Church Terrell, a founder of the National Association of Colored Women, represent another significant part of the transcription project. Terrell believed that suffrage was crucial to elevating the status of black women, and she was an energetic campaigner on their behalf, even joining other suffragists in picketing the White House of Woodrow Wilson.
But while many women’s rights activists were abolitionists and advocates for universal suffrage, racial biases existed within the movement. Both Stanton and Anthony, for instance, have been criticized for prioritizing the needs of white women over black ones. At times, the discrimination was flagrant—like in 1913, when the National American Woman Suffrage Association asked black activists to walk at the back of a landmark women’s march on Washington.
Terrell’s papers thus offer important insight into the experiences of an African-American suffrage leader who fought for both women’s rights and racial equality. In 1905, for instance, she wrote about attending a speech by the Civil Rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who would later encourage the NAACP to make Terrell a charter member.
“I enjoyed it very much,” Terrell recorded in her diaries.
As the team members behind By the People work to add additional suffragist materials to the platform, they are making plans to introduce the papers of another history-making black activist: Rosa Parks. Among the documentary treasures that volunteer transcribers can expect to find when the campaign launches later this year is Parks’ pancake recipe.
In the name of history, Algee says, the library staff actually made them. The verdict? “[T]hey’re really good.”