Vassar Quarterly - Spring 2018 - 46
Planning a museum exhibition to celebrate the
centennial of women's suffrage in the United States is
no small task. A traditional narrative might begin with
the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and end with the
ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. But when
designing a recent show on suffrage for the New-York
Historical Society Museum & Library in New York City,
Valerie Ritter Paley '83, Director of the Center for
Women's History and Chief Historian at the museum,
wanted to do something different.
"So often in history institutions, you see a linear
way of thinking about and explaining the past," Paley
says. "By situating our suffrage exhibition, Hotbed, in
Greenwich Village in the 1910s, we're able to tell the
story of how a group of sexy, youthful women-thinkers, artists, writers, and activists-effected change far
beyond the confines of their neighborhood, not just
across New York State, but ultimately the nation."
Building on the efforts of early suffragists like
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, these
young Bohemians and their male supporters were
inspired by the rapidly growing anti-lynching, labor,
and peace movements, according to Paley. In Hotbed,
more than 100 artifacts and ephemera reflected the
energy of the times. Radical publications, birth control
devices and literature, pro-and anti-suffrage postcards, and buttons filled the display cases. Film clips,
including footage of suffragists marching down Fifth
Avenue, run continuously.
The last room of the gallery briefly addressed areas
of dissension in the movement. Some suffragists
debated American participation in World War I, while
others expressed ideologies marred by bigotry and
classism. History is "messy," as Paley notes. A full wall
of photographs showing more recent protests, including
the 2017 Women's March, served as a reminder that the
fight for equal rights continues.
Like her approach to the center's suffrage exhibition, Paley's trajectory, from
Vassar student to her current position at the New-York Historical Society, was
nonlinear. Immediately after graduating with a dual major in English and psychology, she worked as a graphic designer. Thirteen years later she went back to school,
first earning her MA in American studies and then her PhD in history.
"The thing about a Vassar education is that it teaches critical thinking and
research skills one can apply in any direction," Paley says. She came on board at the
museum in 2002 and, in 2008, began working on her first major exhibit, New York
Rising. This permanent installation on the federal period was completed in time for
the 2011 reopening of the museum following a $70 million renovation to make the
institution more inviting to the public.
The Center for Women's History, the first of its kind in the nation within the walls
of a major museum, opened in the spring of 2017.
Paley's commitment to inclusivity is evident in Women's Voices, a permanent,
interactive, digital media installation and a highlight of the center. "Making
women's history accessible is not a matter of selecting the top 100 women in history,"