I still remember as a child, coming along as my mother cast her ballot. Standing side by side with my mother, the first person in my family to vote in the U.S., left me with wide-eyed curiosity. The wait in line culminating in a thick dark curtain pulled around us, making the solemn hush of the space convey importance and weight.
The author's mother, a refugee, was the first person to vote in her family in the United States. Who was the first person to vote in your family?
Like many voters, my mother took this act seriously and she put the act of voting into context for me, alongside so many other ways of shaping the world she wanted us to live in. It was these personal memories, and those of my neighbors, and their mothers, and their mother’s mothers, that helped shape the Free Library’s newest exhibit, Making Her Mark: Philadelphia Women Fight for the Vote.
The online portion of the exhibition launches today, with the physical exhibition opening later this fall, and uses the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to inform and inspire conversations, learning, and action around voting rights.
The making of Making Her Mark involved a year of meetings, research, curation, and design among a team of colleagues. With Jennifer Zarro as our consulting curator; Nathanael Roesch from the Free Library's Graphic Design Studio as the Lead Designer; and Kalela Williams, Andrew Nurkin, Alix Gerz, and Christine Miller as thought partners in framing the core questions of the exhibit, Making Her Mark represents a sustained collaborative effort to tell the stories of Philadelphia women then and now. Curatorial research also involved consultation with Free Library colleagues in the Government Publications, Print and Picture, and Rare Books Departments. The process of creating an exhibit at the Free Library was new to me and my co-curator. Having started my position as Exhibitions Curator with the library’s Division of Cultural and Civic Engagement the same month that the pandemic began in Philadelphia, I was grateful for a team that shared their expertise and collaborated creatively to make an exhibit come together over countless Zoom calls, texts, and email exchanges. Despite the physical distance, we explored and interpreted photographs and weathered documents together, building off of the extensive in-person research that Professor Zarro conducted in our Special Collections prior to Philadelphia’s introduction to COVID-19. In conceiving the final look of the show, we collaborated with a dynamic design team to think through each visual element carefully, being sure to convey through design the significance of movement-building and civic engagement led by women whose legacies continue to inspire.
Black women in Philadelphia have long led movements to expand voting rights, including Gertrude Bustill Mossell
(left) and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
In telling the stories of suffrage and ongoing voter suppression and disenfranchisement, we sought to amplify the work of Black women in Philadelphia whose access to voting was and continues to be challenged even as their under-recognized leadership makes it possible for women’s voting rights to exist at all. All of this was being done as so many in our city and in our library worked to define what anti-racism can look like in multiracial spaces with lived experiences of trauma and inequity. This exhibit contains stories both new and familiar, and yet the stories remain incomplete. The questions we ask in the exhibit are meant to make space for you to make your mark, and tell your story—and the story of your mother, and your mother’s mother.
In the coming year, we invite you to share your story through online and in-person programs such as this October 2020 dialogue. Engage with this exhibit through Fall 2021, and make sure your stories get told as we continue to make history and shape the world we want to live in.
Visit the Making Her Mark exhibition in Parkway Central Library's West Gallery later this fall, download the PDF, or flip through the cases on display below.
Making Her Mark was curated by Jennifer Zarro, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Instruction, Tyler School of Art and Architecture, Temple University, with Suzanna Urminska. Exhibition design by Nathanael Roesch, Ph.D., Josey Driscoll, and Jonai Gibson-Selix. Special thanks to Alix Gerz, Christine Miller, Andrew Nurkin, and Kalela Williams. It will be available for viewing in person later this month by appointment in the West Gallery of Parkway Central Library through Fall 2021. To view our digital exhibition, visit freelibrary.org/exhibitions today!