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A Conversation with Lisa Kathleen Graddy

Lisa Kathleen Graddy

Image Credit: Courtesy Lisa Kathleen Graddy

Lisa Kathleen Graddy is a curator of the National Museum of American History's women's political history and first ladies collections. We spoke with her recently about women's political participation over the last century.

Q: In 1918, suffragists nationwide protested in support of women's right to vote. In 2018, women are running for political office in record numbers. What lessons can today's American women take from a century ago?

A: We can learn all kinds of things from the suffragists and their 80-year struggle to get the vote. One of the most important lessons comes from their determination. Despite years of setbacks they stayed true to their purpose, and they learned how to navigate the system. They learned the tactics they needed to get the end result -- many of which men didn't think women could learn--to create systemic and political change. They remind us that politics and change can be incremental; you win your battles one at a time.  

Q: The National Museum of American History holds extensive collections in women's political history. If you had to pick one object currently on display that exemplifies how American women have influenced the nation's politics at a key moment, which would you pick and why?

A: When I'm giving tours at the museum, the "Jailed for Freedom" pins always make me emotional. These are small jail-door pins given to the suffragists who protested at the White House and were subsequently arrested and jailed. They represent the amazing heroism of these women who chose to protest with full knowledge of how serious the consequences could be. The suffragists were brave and, even more, they were courageous, which requires acting in spite of fear.

Q: Last year, the museum opened a new permanent exhibition, American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, which explores the history of citizen participation, debate and compromise. How are women represented in this exhibition?

A: In every section you'll find objects related not just to women's suffrage but to women's education, labor and political participation, from a spinning wheel -- showing how women's work helped the colonies produce goods to lessen their dependence on British imports -- to Susan B. Anthony's shawl, which we use to talk about the power of lobbying. There's a marvelous installation that features a variety of protest posters from the 1960s and the push for the Equal Rights Amendment to the 2017 Women's March.

The exhibition looks at unsettled questions: Who gets to vote? How do you participate in a democracy beyond the ballot? What kind of citizenry does a democracy need? These questions have been re-examined with each generation of Americans. Often, it's not pretty but we've survived. We come back and begin anew. This parallels the history of the women's movement: Things will go fallow, then strengthen again and combust. Women move forward.

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