Students partner with Providence museum on women’s suffrage digital exhibition

 Today, a woman’s right to vote is as unassailable as a man’s. But a century ago, the concept of women’s suffrage in the United States was still highly controversial — even among women themselves.

That’s one major takeaway from a new interactive, publicly accessible website brought to life by seven Brown University students, two Rhode Island School of Design students and Providence’s Lippitt House Museum, titled “Suffrage in Rhode Island: A Lippitt Family Perspective.”

The digital exhibition — created to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which stated that a person’s right to vote can’t be denied because of sex — underscores the complex history of the women’s suffrage movement by tracing the lives and personal affinities of one politically powerful Providence family and the people who worked for and lived with them.

The Brown undergraduate and graduate students worked alongside Lippitt House Museum staff to develop the exhibition as part of the spring American studies course “Shrine, House or Home: Rethinking the Historic House Museum,” taught by Ron Potvin, an assistant director and curator at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage.

The course not only equipped students with an up-close experience in modern-day exhibition planning but also showcased the kind of public humanities work that can make historical insights accessible to the world beyond academia, instilling a deeper understanding of the events of today.

“One of the focuses of the class is to get away from the idea of these museums as merely houses — as buildings with stuff inside them — and to shift the focus to the fact that they were once people’s homes,” Potvin said. “They are not neat, organized, pristine or conflict-free. They had residents who struggled with moral decisions, who got sick, who engaged actively with the cultures of their times, good and bad. The goal is to show a history of fully formed, multidimensional people.”

The research Potvin’s students contributed doesn’t shy away from the fact that many of the women and men in the Lippitt family once stood on what ultimately became the wrong side of history. Henry Lippitt, Rhode Island’s governor from 1875 to 1877, was opposed to general expansion of suffrage. Lippitt’s daughter, Mary, vocally opposed women’s suffrage, as did his namesake son, Henry, who served one term as a U.S. senator in the 1910s. Margaret Farnum Lippitt, whose husband, Charles, served as Rhode Island governor from 1895 to 1897, once argued before the state senate judiciary committee that women should not be allowed to vote in presidential elections.

“I think it’s important to recognize that much of culture is contested,” Potvin said. “People don’t think with a single mind based upon a group identity. So even though on the surface it seemed as if suffrage would be beneficial for all women, some believed it would not be — they thought it would detract from their authority in the household, for example. It goes to show that the history of every movement is richer and more complex than we might imagine.”

 I think it’s important to recognize that much of culture is contested… the history of every movement is richer and more complex than we might imagine.

RON POTVIN  Assistant Director and Curator, John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage

Students conveyed that complexity by working with museum staff to develop a timeline of historical events — not just those pertaining to women’s suffrage, but also those that chronicle a more complete story of voting rights in Rhode Island. The timeline was an early idea dreamed up by Lippitt House Museum Director Carrie Taylor, who imagined it as a physical display in the house before the COVID-19 pandemic closed the museum in March and moved the project online.

“I wanted to weave these personal stories in with big national milestones,” Taylor said. “There were, and still are, so many restrictions on voting: There were poll taxes, property ownership requirements, race restrictions, gender and financial restrictions. The idea of putting a local perspective on these restrictions makes these stories personal. It makes it a story about real people who had real struggles and fought real fights for actions they wanted to see.”

Before the pandemic, Lippitt House functioned as a kind of lab for the Brown students. They visited the museum — located on Hope Street, directly adjacent to Brown’s campus — every week, delving into the personal histories of house servants, engaging in close observations of particular spaces and objects, and participating in discussions with Taylor and other museum staff. Potvin said that previous iterations of his course have seen students working with the Stephen Hopkins House museum in Providence and the Handy House in Westport, Massachusetts, and developing a self-guided tour of immigrant and industrial housing in New Bedford.

suffrage meme
Undergraduate student Nat Hardy referenced the often conflicting views of women who opposed their own right to vote in this meme, part of the digital exhibition.

“I learn best by doing hands-on work that is similar to what I do in the workplace,” said Brown student Maddie Mott, who graduated this spring with a master’s degree in public humanities and works at the John Carter Brown Library. “I loved that the course was very hands-on. We spent a lot of time at the Lippitt House Museum, and we also spent time in class discussing some of the practical issues that historic house museums face today.”

Mott assisted with timeline research for the exhibition, and when the entire project moved online, she designed its digital home using the web tool Timeline JS.

Students in the course also created suffrage-related memes for the digital exhibition — a nod to the illustrated postcards women distributed in the early 20th century to drum up, and sometimes discourage, support for voting rights.

“They were graphic, provocative and shared, similar in nature to memes,” Potvin said of the vintage postcards students studied and discussed. “They provided a great jumping off point for the class to reflect on and critique the suffrage and anti-suffrage movements using a digital medium and the vernacular of social media.”

suffrage postcard
Women in the 1910s would often distribute postcards that clarified their stance on suffrage, much as many use memes to communicate today.

Kristen Marchetti, an undergraduate in the course, grew up visiting several house museums in New England — but she said this course was her first insider look at how the museums are run and how their missions are frequently shifting toward sharing more diverse, inclusive histories.

“I decided to take this class because I am very interested in pursuing a museum career, especially as a curator, educator or conservator at an art museum,” Marchetti said. “I loved that it gave me a new perspective on the role of historic house museums today. It was so helpful to consider the potential for these places to better represent and engage their communities by expanding histories of underrepresented social groups.”

Taylor, Potvin and the students all hope the digital exhibition drives home the fact that the fight for equal voting rights is far from over, both locally and nationally — especially for historically underrepresented groups.

As the digital timeline shows, a voter identification law passed in 2011 currently prevents undocumented immigrants and other Rhode Islanders without a state identification from casting a ballot. And in many states, “use it or lose it” laws allow leaders to purge from the voter rolls millions of citizens who don’t regularly participate in elections, which disproportionately affects Americans of color.

“The importance of engaging in places like historic house museums is to expand our understanding of the struggles it took to get to a certain point,” Potvin said. “People tend to view these struggles in a vacuum without acknowledging the moments that led to this moment. This is part of a very long history that is still unresolved.”