Mapping Suffrage History: Reflection

Project Goals:

The goal for this project was to collect and share the stories of African American suffragists at the turn of the 20th century, something that is especially important as we approach the centennial of the 19th Amendment. When talking about women’s suffrage campaigns it’s necessary to speak about those who were excluded from mainstream (white, elite) suffrage organizations.  To share these stories, I created a historypin collection and tour and a wordpress blog. I chose historypin because I was interested in the ways maps in which could be used to display the connections between suffrage organizations and women – where did they live? Where did they for clubs and work on campaigns? Who did they interact with? Because historypin is not a commonly known website outside of digital history circles, I built a very simple blog to host the maps and provide more context.

Research Notes:

Through my research I was able to identify several possible learning. Sharing the stories of these women can help users to identify where prominent African American suffragists lived and campaigned, what suffrage and social organizations they formed and participated in, and how to analyze the factors that motivated African American suffragists to interact with (or avoid) organizations like NAWSA and NWP.

Many of the women I studied were from well to do and prominent black families in northern cities, but others were born to formerly enslaved parents, or were enslaved at birth themselves. The majority of these women became teachers or were involved in education, one of the only paths open to women, and especially African American women, at the time. There were several “hubs” of activism; Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and D.C. featured heavily. Finally, African American female suffragists were almost always involved in other social and civil rights organizations, and often were part of abolition, anti-lynching, and anti-segregation movements. Thus, suffrage was one aspect of their pursuit for equal rights.

Project Notes:

While I was initially excited about the mapping aspect of this project, it came with its own issues. These women often travelled extensively throughout the country, and often lived and worked in different cities throughout their lifetimes. Using a single pin to represent a lifetime of movement and experience creates a static experience that does not necessarily accurately represent reality. Sometimes, even locating a specific address for a woman was hard. Because many of these women were club organizers or influential in rights campaigns, some of their houses are National Park Service sites or otherwise marked as an important landmark. The addresses of other women though, who were less involved or less recognized, have not been preserved. In those cases, I tried to locate an organization or philanthropy they were involved in (for example, the foundation of a school, settlement house, or hospital) but often these had been lost to time as well. Because of this, while some pins are highly accurate, some of them are more generally placed. When given a generic location such as “Philadelphia,” historypin selects a specific geographic location to place the pin. This may lead to confusion from users, as some pins appear to be accurately located while in reality they are not.

Issues with Historypin:

Initially uploading the pins was not difficult. The upload/edit function of historypin is really well thought out, with instructions about what information is required (title, date, location) and what is optional (description, license, tags). Editing a pin after it is uploaded is also easy and uses the same form. What I had a challenge with was getting all my pins to show up on the screen. Unless the map is zoomed out to include the entire US, visitors to the site can only see pins shown in the section of the country they can see. This is both intuitive and not; visitors may not understand the necessity of zooming out to include the entirety of the map, and so may miss a number of biographies. This issue was mostly solved by creating a tour version of the biographies, which ensured a visitor could click through all of the pins, and still see their location on the map.

Overall, I was happy with how the maps turned out on historypin, but if I repeated this project, I would consider using ArcGIS StoryMaps, which offers many more diverse editing functions.

Project Connections:

There were readings from several weeks that particularly influenced my thinking about this project. First of all, and most obviously, was the week on mobile media, place and mapping where we discussed the different ways museum and public history professionals are thinking about place and space in their work.

I was also especially impressed with Dragan Espenschied’s article “Big Data, Little Narration,” which included a discussion of Google’s Zeitgeist globe. I found the globe super interesting, but Espenschied had important questions that made me think more deeply about my project: why is the data arrange the way it is? Why is it on a globe? What has been left out? What is the most authentic way to share this information? How can we make representations of data meaningful?

Finally, the week on crowd-sourcing captured my interest. While the project as it stands does not include crowd-sourced material, historypin has a function where you can add a pin to a collection that already exists. I’ve chose to keep that function open, so that anyone can add a pin to “Lifting As We Climb.” While the women whose stories I shared were leaders or prominent members of suffrage organizations, there are thousands of women who participated who have gone unmentioned. By encouraging people to add their own pins to this map, we can perhaps learn these stories.

Conclusion:

Despite the issues I encountered and have shared in this post, I am really happy with how this project turned out. The map and tour successfully share the stories of women who often do not get the recognition they deserve, and in doing so create a more complex and nuanced narrative of women’s suffrage.

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