Our History, Our Selves

By Leah Rosovsky, Stanford Calderwood Director,Boston Athenæum

When I started working at the Boston Athenæum, I didn’t entirely appreciate one of the benefits: looking up close at history’s treasures.

The special collections include dazzling things—and also some plain ones. I get to see them in person, like all members—and everyone can join or visit the Athenæum. Our curators mount exhibitions in the building and online. They focus attention on items that connect us to Boston’s history, and they spark conversations of critical importance.

We recently launched (Anti)SUFFRAGE, an online exhibition viewable at bostonathenaeum.org. Curated by Theo Tyson, the Polly Thayer Starr Fellow in American Art and Culture at the Athenæum, it’s timed to coincide with the 19th Amendment’s centennial.

The items on view represent many sides of the complex struggle toward securing voting rights for women and people of color. Of course, issues of voting rights are still making headlines. Seeing some of the nineteenth-century arguments in detail is informative, because critically examining our history helps us understand our own times.

One evocative item is suffragist Susan B. Anthony’s account of her trial on the charge of illegal voting in the presidential election of 1872. Three things make this old volume special.

First, it provides one window into women’s struggle for the vote. Anthony’s case helped draw national attention to the suffrage question. It seems she wanted the story of her arrest, trial, and conviction widely known. By publishing her account afterward, she increased the suffragists’ visibility and advanced their arguments.

Second, the Athenæum’s copy of this broadly-distributed account is made special by Susan B. Anthony’s autograph, adding a layer of meaning and political purpose to the document.

Third, the recipient of the inscription is “Mrs. C. H. Dall”— that’s Caroline Healey Dall, who grew up on Beacon Hill, at 6 Hancock Street. A women’s rights advocate, Dall co-edited The Una, a journal “devoted to the elevation of woman,” in the 1850s. She gave copies of that to the BA, too. You can come see it, if that interests you.

I learn every time I look at the special collections. Multiple perspectives are represented in items like Susan B. Anthony’s trial account; a photographic portrait of Sojourner Truth that she commissioned and sold to support the cause of suffrage; a signed letter by Booker T. Washington; and even a 2018 artist’s book by Boston artist Laura Davidson, We’ve Been Holding This Sign for 100 Years.

This history reverberates for me, as I suspect it might for many women—and men, too. It compiles layers of activity: someone speaking out, someone being tried and convicted, someone writing a documentary account, someone preserving that book in an archive, someone reading it and drawing conclusions or fueling their own work.

At the Athenaeum, people work in the reading rooms every day. Some use our collections for research. Some are writing histories or fiction. Some may be taking care of business matters or simply reading email. Together, here on Beacon Hill, we are sitting amid histories that absorb and inform us, even as we create new histories ourselves.

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