The Library of Congress Digitizes Over 16,000 Pages of Letters & Speeches from the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and You Can Help Transcribe Them

“Democ­ra­cy may not exist,” Astra Tay­lor declares in the title of her new book, “but we’ll miss it when it’s gone.” This inher­ent para­dox, she argues, is not fatal, but a ten­sion with which each era’s demo­c­ra­t­ic move­ments must wres­tle, in messy strug­gles against inevitable oppo­si­tion. “Per­fect democ­ra­cy… may not in fact exist and nev­er will, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress toward it, or that what there is of it can’t dis­ap­pear.”

Tay­lor is upfront about “democracy’s dark his­to­ry, from slav­ery and colo­nial­ism to facil­i­tat­ing the emer­gence of fas­cism.” But she is equal­ly cel­e­bra­to­ry of its successes—moments when those who were denied rights mar­shaled every means at their dis­pos­al, from lob­by­ing cam­paigns to con­fronta­tion­al direct action, to win the vote and bet­ter the lives of mil­lions. For all its imper­fec­tions, the women’s suf­frage move­ment of the 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry did just that.

It did so—even before elec­tron­ic mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion systems—by build­ing inter­na­tion­al activist net­works and form­ing nation­al asso­ci­a­tions that took high­ly-vis­i­ble action for decades until the 19th Amend­ment passed in 1920. We can learn how this all came about from the sources them­selves, through the “let­ters, speech­es, news­pa­per arti­cles, per­son­al diaries, and oth­er mate­ri­als from famed suf­frag­ists like Susan B. Antho­ny and Eliz­a­beth Cady Stan­ton.”

So reports Men­tal Floss, describ­ing the Library of Con­gress’ dig­i­tal col­lec­tion of suf­frag­ist papers, which includes dozens of famous and less famous activist voic­es. In one exam­ple of both inter­na­tion­al coop­er­a­tion and inter­na­tion­al ten­sion, Car­rie Chap­man Catt, Anthony’s suc­ces­sor (see a pub­lished excerpt of one of her speech­es below), describes her expe­ri­ence at the Con­gress of the Inter­na­tion­al Woman Suf­frage Alliance in Rome. “A more unpromis­ing place for a Con­gress I nev­er saw,” she wrote, dis­mayed. Maybe despite her­self she reveals that the dif­fer­ences might have been cul­tur­al: “The Ital­ian women could not com­pre­hend our dis­ap­proval.”

The frac­tious, often dis­ap­point­ing, rela­tion­ships between the larg­er inter­na­tion­al women’s suf­frage move­ment, the African Amer­i­can women’s suf­frage move­ment, and most­ly male Civ­il Rights lead­ers in the U.S. are rep­re­sent­ed by the diaries. let­ters, note­books, and speech­es of Mary Church Ter­rell, “a founder of the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Col­ored Women. These doc­u­ments shed light on minori­ties’ labo­ri­ous suf­frage strug­gles and her own deal­ings with Civ­il Rights fig­ures like W.E.B. Du Bois.” (Ter­rell became an activist in 1892 and lived to fight against Jim Crow seg­re­ga­tion in the ear­ly 1950s.)

The col­lec­tion includes “some 16,000 his­toric papers relat­ed to the women’s rights move­ment alone.” All of them have been dig­i­tal­ly scanned, and if you’re eager to dig into this for­mi­da­ble archive, you’re in luck. The Library of Con­gress is ask­ing for help tran­scrib­ing so that every­one can read these pri­ma­ry sources of demo­c­ra­t­ic his­to­ry. So far, reports Smith­son­ian, over 4200 doc­u­ments have been tran­scribed, as part of a larg­er, crowd­sourced project called By the Peo­ple, which has pre­vi­ous­ly tran­scribed papers from Abra­ham Lin­coln, Clara Bar­ton, Walt Whit­man, and oth­ers.

Rather than focus­ing on an indi­vid­ual, this project is inclu­sive of what is arguably the main engine of democ­ra­cy: large-scale social movements—paradoxically the most demo­c­ra­t­ic means of claim­ing indi­vid­ual rights. Enter the impres­sive dig­i­tal col­lec­tion “Suf­frage: Women Fight for the Vote” here, and, if you’re moved by civic duty or schol­ar­ly curios­i­ty, sign up to tran­scribe.

via Men­tal Floss

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

The Women’s Suf­frage March of 1913: The Parade That Over­shad­owed Anoth­er Pres­i­den­tial Inau­gu­ra­tion a Cen­tu­ry Ago

Odd Vin­tage Post­cards Doc­u­ment the Pro­pa­gan­da Against Women’s Rights 100 Years Ago

The Library of Con­gress Makes Thou­sands of Fab­u­lous Pho­tos, Posters & Images Free to Use & Reuse

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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