On Display: The Public Lives of 20th-Century American Women

By April C. Armstrong and Amanda Ferrara, exhibition curators

Men, especially political leaders, are usually assessed on their professional records. Women, no matter how professional they may be, are often judged on their personal lives.

–Brenda Feigan Fasteau and Bonnie Lobel, New York Magazine, December 20, 1971

Visitors to Mudd Library will notice a new exhibition in our Weiss Lounge drawn from the holdings of our Public Policy Papers, “On Display: The Public Lives of 20th-Century American Women.” As the exhibition title’s double meaning suggests, the lines between the private and public lives of women have often blurred, with personal medical decisions becoming a matter of public debate, living rooms transforming into sites of political activism, and marriage pulling women into unpaid public service. 

Lillian Markowski, age 20, an engine cleaner for the Long Island Railroad. Markowski took over her fiance’s job when he joined the Army. Her brother was also a soldier. Photo by Roy Pitney, February 2, 1943, Ivy Ledbetter Lee Papers (MC085), Box 103, Folder 4.

On May 21, 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, stating, “The right of the citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” It took more than a year for the needed 36 states to ratify it, with Tennessee’s vote on August 18, 1920 officially giving women the constitutional right to vote in America. The 2019-2020 academic year thus marks the centennial of the culmination of one major aspect of women’s activism in the United States. As the exhibition acknowledges, the right to vote was still not effectively available to many American women, especially women of color and the poor. The fight for many other civil rights was–and still is– ongoing.

Editorial cartoon depicting suffragettes (geese) waking up Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan, who are sleeping in front of the Senate, 1914. This cartoon references the Women’s March of 1913. Political Cartoon Collection (MC180), Box 10.

The Public Policy papers may not appear at first glance to have a great deal related to women, in part because the priorities of earlier generations did not lead them to intentionally collect this sort of material. This is not a problem exclusive to Princeton, but a challenge for our colleagues across our profession. The Society of American Archivists has acknowledged and reiterated that these archival silences have limited our understanding of women’s history (see, for example, Tanya Zanish-Belcher and Anke Voss’s Perspectives on Women’s Archives (2013)).

Margaret Snyder and Daria Tesha tour mines in Zambia, ca. 1973. Snyder was actively involved in women’s economic and development issues in various regions of the world for more than three decades. Among her various roles, she was the Founding Director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women. Margaret Snyder Papers, Box 41.

We have curated this exhibition in part to demonstrate that our predecessors here at Princeton, despite biases against seeing women’s contributions to American public life as worthy of documenting or preserving, nonetheless inadvertently amassed a wealth of material for those seeking to learn about 20th-century American women. Further, it is important to us to show how women have always been involved in public policy, even before they might have been understood to be engaged in this work by their contemporaries. Thus, this exhibition draws both on named collections of prominent women’s papers, such as the Margaret Snyder Papers and the Anne Martindell Papers, and on collections where researchers might not expect to find relevant material, such as the George S. McGovern Papers and the John Doar Papers. Material also appears in the exhibition from institutional records like the American Civil Liberties Union Records and the Association on American Indian Affairs Records

Maps showing family planning services available to women in Queens, New York, 1961 and 1966. (Click to enlarge.) Norman Ryder Papers (MC250), Box 8.

It is our hope that by curating this material, we might inspire more creative approaches to the Public Policy papers for students, faculty, and visiting researchers using our library. As our collecting policies have changed to prioritize underrepresented demographics, we expect continued enrichment in our holdings related to those outside Princeton’s historical white male paradigm.

Note: The majority of the material on display in this exhibition are facsimiles, including all material mounted on the walls. Most of the material on the bottom of the cases are originals. Originals of the facsimiles can be viewed within their collections in our reading room. Access to Mudd Library is open to all, regardless of institutional affiliation. Please contact us for more information.

For further reading:

Armstrong, April C. “‘Make This World Safe for the Babies’: The Liberty Loan Committee’s Appeal to American Women.”

Armstrong, April C. “World War II ‘Trainwomen’ of the Long Island Railroad.”

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