This month—National Women’s History Month—presented an opportunity for many of us at Overland to explore our thoughts and feelings about being female in a male-dominated industry, and I considered researching women who have influenced architecture, design, the arts, business and American culture in general. I wanted to know more, but with limited time and space, I decided to delve deeper instead of casting a wider net. After more contemplation, I realized that I wanted to explore a closer personal connection than one found in standard research and statistics.
My mind finally landed on a connection from my family archives: my maternal grandmother’s uncle, George Grantham Bain. As my great grand-uncle, this seems a far reach personally, but not so far considering the close relationship my father had with his grandfather, R.E.M. Bain (George’s older brother). George founded the Bain News Service in New York, the first photojournalistic news service in America.
The Women’s History topic brought to mind the hundreds of photographs of the early 1900s women’s suffrage movement, part of a collection of Bain’s 50,000 plates, negatives and prints in the Library of Congress, taken at hand. These particular photos reveal a social norm we can hardly imagine: American women fighting for the right to vote. It seems counterintuitive to the American foundations of democracy, but it was a very real and active campaign for at least 150 years.
Women’s History timelines commonly cite this passage as one of the first references to American women’s plea for equal consideration:
Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, who is attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, asking that he and the other men—who were at work on the Declaration of Independence—”Remember the Ladies.” John responds with humor. The Declaration’s wording specifies that “all men are created equal.”
That was in 1776. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified August 26, 1920.
Historic Depth Developed
Spending time in the “suffrage collection” was fascinating and inspiring. But there was much more at stake than the vote. Further delving into these remarkable photographic archives of the turn of the century in America reveals women’s lives of hard labor, devastating poverty, abuse, and physical and emotional suffering. Child labor and dangerous conditions were commonplace. One of the most powerful examples of the impact of Bain’s photography was in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in NYC. Many of our labor laws only came to pass after the loss of 146 workers, most of them young immigrant women and girls who died, trapped in locked rooms with no exits, sending shockwaves through the nation and inspiring an outraged population to demand safer conditions.
Bain’s photographs are used often in documentaries and publications. I can hear the Ken Burns narrations when I browse the thousands of images online, lost in a world of immigrants coming through Ellis Island, settling in New York, finding work in factories, and living in crowded, dirty tenements, freezing cold in winter and sweltering in summer. Their children played on building rooftops and in streets and alleys while they worked 70 or 80-hour weeks in hazardous conditions. And to think… this was all only 100 years ago.
The Power of Pictures
We grew up seeing my father’s family photo albums, filled with prints by the Bain brothers, as well as my grandmother’s childhood album filled with press photos from her uncle, sent to her from his reporting on Taft’s presidential campaign. Hearing my father’s stories about his grandfather and great-uncle makes this connection real and relevant. These days are not that far behind us. These women’s names are no longer well known, but they campaigned—they hiked, paraded, wrote letters and articles, decorated floats, made speeches, and made banners, props and theatrical demonstrations—all in the name of acquiring rights we don’t think twice about.
Once I had considered Bain’s contribution to this larger topic I wondered how my connections to ancestors who were not famous or privileged deserved honor as well. I imagine the strength and character of all the women who endured hardships to contribute to a quality of life we now take for granted. I reflect on my mother’s hard work raising a family in post-WW2 America. Her common sense, empathetic wisdom, ongoing encouragement, and love for music and art were gifts she gave my sisters and me, asking for almost nothing for herself. My grandmother, my aunts, teachers, family friends and neighbors; how many stories of these women have I shared with my own children over the years without fully realizing the larger, social significance of their personal courage and determination? We tell the stories, and although the message often isn’t unique to our family, the imagery that we preserve and share is extremely powerful. Women cooking, cleaning, patiently caring for their children and aging parents, working in all varieties of jobs, teaching, volunteering, homemaking, making family celebrations beautiful and joyful. They may not have earned graduate degrees or had impressive resumes, but they got us where we are now with our values and our dreams intact. They made history.