In the summer of 2016, I took my 8-year-old granddaughter Isabella to Seneca Falls, New York to see the site of The Declaration of Sentiments, that demanded a vote, declared at the 1848 National Women’s Rights Convention. In the year that the U.S. expected to see its first female president, I wanted Isabella to understand that the right to vote was an enduring struggle, that lives were risked, and for many, the risk continued for decades.
Seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls convention, the 19th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing U.S. women the right to vote. On August 26, 1920 at 8 o’clock in the morning, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the amendment into law, without ceremony at his home in Washington. From the History Channel website, “None of the leaders of the woman suffrage movement were present when the proclamation was signed and no photographers or film cameras recorded the event… That afternoon, Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the National American Suffrage Association, was received at the White House by President Woodrow Wilson and Edith Wilson, the first lady." Sounds very cookies-and-tea to me.
It was so striking to read that the document was signed into law with no fanfare, especially after all the years of struggles by so many individuals and group efforts. As a side note, Catt's National American Suffrage Association, and a group led by Alice Paul, Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, were at odds with each other for many years. Alice's organization was more radical. They were the women who picketed day and night as the Silent Sentinels in front of Wilson's White House. Catt, not Alice Paul, was invited to tea.
I made the Seneca Falls Lock video from my sorrow, and I made Signing the 19th Amendment from my anger. I made the series, Self-portrait with Files, to wrestle with these burdens and to insist on courage. My work always embraces the physicality of its subjects as if I am an athlete for the aesthetic process. The female in the artworks is presented as a determined psyche pushing through a social system that is self-satisfied with its inequality. Strength for this woman manifests through unstoppable actions: the lock opens, the burden is lifted.
Kim Abeles/January 2020