Persistence Overcomes Resistance: Honoring Women Suffragists Through Public Artwork

Despite challenges, the Chicago’s Womxn’s Suffrage Tribute Committee installs the largest tribute to suffragists in the city of Chicago.

Women fought for several decades in order to gain legal access to the vote in the United States. With the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, women who did not face additional barriers could take advantage of that right. More than a century later in 2023, women not only vote, but they also run for office and win. The percentage of women in politics, and many other professions, has grown significantly in the past few decades. However, when one looks at public artwork, women are almost nonexistent.

There is significant disparity between women being depicted as fictional or mythical characters, goddesses, mermaids, or extremely abstract figures compared to those of real women. With less than seven percent of monuments depicting real women, the public artwork landscape in the United States does not reflect the truth about who contributed to the building and progress of the country.  

Inspired by the centennial of the 19th Amendment, the Chicago Womxn’s Suffrage Tribute Committee (CWSTC) formed in 2020 in order to create public artwork to honor those who fought to legalize the vote for women. Too many are unaware that generations of women experienced horrible abuse during their fight for the legal right to vote. During the multi-decade movement, women were jailed, force fed, brutalized, and marginalized during their fight. They were assaulted and socially ostracized in attempts to silence them. The women from multiple generations and racial backgrounds who led the movement need to be more well-known and celebrated. 

What originally started out as a one-mural project featuring suffrage leaders grew into three murals, all within one block of each other in the South Loop of Chicago.

The six committee members were thrilled to collaborate with Wabash Arts Corridor in order to celebrate local suffrage leaders and connect their work and sacrifices to the current victories for women. They conducted research, raised funds, created requests for proposals, commissioned artists, and finally secured a wall. 

Diosa (Jasmina Cazacu) created On the Wings of Change that featured ten portraits: seven white women—Jane Addams, Myra Bradwell, Mary Livermore, Catherine Waugh McColloch, Agnes Nestor, Grace Wilbur Trout, and Frances Willard—and three Black women: Mary Fitzbutler Waring, Ida B. Wells, and Fannie Barrier Williams. Dorian Sylvain created a text-based design titled Speak Up! with the words “I’m Speaking” which Vice President Kamala Harris repeatedly stated during the 2020 vice presidential debate. The phrase encapsulated the long-standing challenge women faced to speak without being interrupted.

In 2021, On the Wings of Change was installed at 33 E. Ida B. Wells Drive. Speak Up! was blocked by a man who owned the parking lot adjacent to the wall. Despite the political, social and economic progress women have made over the past century, the implication was that a woman asserting her right to be heard was controversial and could make some uncomfortable. The committee members refused to change the language or let the project die. In a political climate of book bans targeting racial and gender minorities, academic censoring, rollbacks in reproductive freedom and diminishment of transgender rights, the committee members were determined to not be silenced and defeated. They wrote articlesop-ed pieces, emails and created social media posts along with other forms of communication to gain support for the project. 

When it became apparent that it could take years to gain access to their original site, they pivoted their strategy to secure an alternate location. After nearly two years of approaching politicians, organizations, businesses and institutions, they secured a different wall in a nearby and friendly environment at 623 S. Wabash. Sylvain adjusted her design of Speak Up! to fit the smaller space, which left room for another piece. In order to give further nod to the suffrage movement, the committee commissioned AB Productions to create the Votes for Women mural which featured a yellow rose, a symbol used during the suffrage movement. Both murals were installed in July and dedicated on September 28, 2023. 

What originally started out as a one-mural project featuring suffrage leaders grew into three murals, all within one block of each other in the South Loop of Chicago. This creates a powerful walking experience to reflect on and celebrate women’s activism. Further, these murals emphasize the fight for women’s inclusion in the country’s democracy and offer an opportunity for people to learn about and be inspired by suffrage leaders.

As the largest tribute to suffragists in the city of Chicago, the three murals add to the public art landscape of real women being depicted. There is still a long way to go, but one piece at a time, equal representation and gender equity will someday be achieved. 

Michelle Duster is a member of CWSTC.

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Michelle Duster is an educator and activist whose advocacy has led to street names, monuments, historical markers and other public history projects. She is the author of several books including Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells and her forthcoming Ida B. Wells, Voice of Truth about her paternal great-grandmother.