by Stephen B. Wilson

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Andrea Rankin, noted women’s-issues historian and venerated activist with Aid to Victims of Violence, has created a compelling exhibit to commemorate Women’s History Month in the first-floor gallery space at YWCA Cortland, located at 14 Clayton Ave.

The banners, posters, photographs, newspaper clippings, and collages illuminate a wide range of issues—historical and contemporary—that have dominated, and in many cases consumed, the lives of women from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present.

I walked slowly through the exhibit with Ms. Rankin and was rewarded with information about the heroines of the suffrage movement, the fight for equal pay, the history of the attempt to ratify the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, the local and national opposition to women’s suffrage, the emergence of the “Me Too” movement, and various issues concerning women’s health.

The exhibit is dominated by four banners that hang like bunting from the high arched ceiling.  Moving from the entrance to the opposite end of the hallway, the first banner portrays a woman dressed in a knight’s armor, carrying a lance and riding a steed draped in heraldry.  In the background is the modern U.S. Capitol building.  The caption reads “Women’s Suffrage Procession, Washington D. C., March 3, 1913.”  The second banner is a portrait of Harriet Tubman (an African American woman who is the subject of the currently running film “Harriet”), with the caption, “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say I never ran the train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

The third banner shows the poignant picture of a woman nursing her new-born child.  The caption reads:  “Women bring all voters into the world.”  The fourth banner proclaims in broad, bold type:  “A woman living here has registered to vote.”  The final banner shows the Women’s Suffrage March and Mass Meeting of June 13, 1908.

When I asked Ms. Rankin about the source of the banners, she explained that they are “Radical Tea Towels” purchased in Seneca Falls, NY, which has been called “ground zero” for the movements for women’s rights.

Andrea Rankin clearly has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of suffragism.  She spoke at length and pointed to displays of some of the most influential figures over the history of the fight for women’s rights.  These include Alice Paul, whose Quaker mother taught her that men and women were equal.  She and her friend Lucy Burns led the Congressional Committee of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association in 1910.  Ms. Paul also practiced non-violent direct action ten years before Mahatma Gandhi did.

Ida B. Wells was an African American journalist, educator, and civil rights leader, who toured the South protesting lynchings.  She was also one of the founders of the NAACP and founded the National Association of Colored Women.  An accomplished writer, she wrote “Southern Horrors and Other Writings.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a New York native, was also an eloquent writer who penned her “Declaration of Sentiments” as a revolutionary call for women’s rights.  Sadly, according to Ms. Rankin, Stanton acted in a racist manner when she betrayed her values for political expediency.  She and Susan B. Anthony were both abolitionists who fought to end slavery.  They thought that women should be enfranchised with black men.  Republican politicians of the day thought differently.  They argued that black men should vote because they were men and women should not vote simply and especially because they were women. (This exhibit includes a summary of the issue in the essay “We Finally Won the Vote, but There Was Racism in Our Ranks,” by Andrea Rankin.)

Andrea’s admiration for strong female activists is not limited to figures from the past.  She spoke with obvious respect and affection for the late Elsie Gutchess of Cortland, who for years gathered and preserved information from across the nation about a wide range of subjects of interest to women.  Ms. Gutchess was a dedicated benefactress to YWCA Cortland, and before her death Ms. Rankin worked with her to organize thousands of files and books that will go to the Elsie Gutchess Library in a newly restored historical home of Suffragist Isabel Howland in Sherwood, NY.

During my tour of the display, I stood for what seemed like forever, looking with disgust at clippings from newspapers, including “our own” Cortland Democrat and the New York Times from 1917, both of which opposed women’s suffrage.  These blatantly misogynistic screeds defied belief.  Here are some samples from the Democrat:  “Now is the time for patriotism. . . The place for a woman [to] picket is at the kitchen door.  She serves her country there. …”  “[Women’s suffrage] means that men will lose 50% of their political power.”  “Family life is being defaced beyond recognition.  Leading churchmen, statesmen, doctors, and judges are among the opponents of women’s enfranchisement.”

But my “favorite” is the opinion published in the New York Times in 1912.  “The situation is dangerous.  We often hear the remark nowadays that women will get the vote. . . . And it is true that they will get it and play havoc with it for themselves and society, if men are not wise enough—and it must be said—masculine enough to prevent them.”

For readers interested in statistics and economics, there is a display that explores the pay inequity between men and women today.  One component shows that a white woman must work for fifteen months before earning the salary that a man doing the same job earns in twelve.  A woman of color would have to work for eighteen months for the same income.  Because progress toward eliminating this inequity is moving so slowly, one estimate says that the gap will be closed in 2093!

Another attractive and informative display covers female representation in Congress, the Supreme Court, and state and local legislatures.  There is also a history of the creation of and advocacy for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Although the YWCA facility is closed to the public until further notice in response to the COVID-19 situation, people can view the display on the YWCA website (cortlandywca.org).