Library of Congress to transcribe rare suffragist letters
August 18, 2020, will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Congress passing the 19th Amendment, officially granting women the right to vote. To prepare for the monumental celebration, the Library of Congress is working on transcribing some 16,000 historical papers penned by suffrage movement leaders. If you’re interested in helping, the Library of Congress is asking for volunteers to help staff members transcribe some of the most pivotal documents about women’s rights.
Fighting for women’s rights
Even though the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, the women’s suffrage movement began in 1848 during the Seneca Falls [New York] women’s rights convention, which launched a national support of women’s rights. For the next 50 years, woman suffrage supporters, under the leadership of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others, started petitions to demand the U.S. Congress consider women during presidential elections. Suffragists fought long and hard, and they weren’t going to give up, no matter what.
But they faced many challenges. Politicians rejected the suffragists’ efforts, even being unwilling to listen to the group. Recognizing this, women bonded together and formed separate groups—the National American Woman Suffrage Association [undertaking campaigns to enfranchise women in individual states] and the National Woman’s Party [undertaking radical actions, including picketing the White House]. Women demanded President Woodrow Wilson and Congress members to listen to them, and they eventually did.
Finally, on August 18, 1920, due to the efforts of these women suffragists, the 19th Amendment was finally ratified. Many individuals consider this moment as one of the greatest achievements for women in American history. Because of this, historians have been fascinated by the suffrage movement since it ended.
Reviewing the documents
Can you imagine an era where you couldn’t digitally save your messages or documents? You couldn’t store them in “the cloud.” Instead, people wrote letters by hand and they hoped they wouldn’t get lost. Luckily, that didn’t happen with the letters left behind by suffragists. The Library of Congress currently owns 16,000 papers related to the women’s rights movement—all preserved in its archives. But, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment in 2020, the Library of Congress is transcribing them to share them with the public for the first time ever.
This isn’t the first time the Library of Congress has shared historical documents. For example, the library has previously worked on papers belonging to President Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, and many more. Historians love to review these documents to help understand these important figures. The letters contain their personal writing, in which historians can use to grasp a deeper understanding of their minds and what they were thinking during the most pivotal moments of their lives and careers.
Needing some help
The Library of Congress has already scanned the documents into a digital library. The new collection includes letters, speeches, newspaper articles, personal diary entries, and other materials by suffragists, including Anthony and Stanton. The collection also includes accounts from Carrie Chapman Catt on her experiences at the Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Rome.
Historians purportedly agree that this is a phenomenal collection, but some of the decades-old documents contain passages often too blurry to decipher. That’s why the Library of Congress launched a crowdsourcing platform, called By the People, which asks the public to help type up written documents, word for word. This process would make it easier to read the original documents.
According to Elizabeth Novara, curator of the library’s new “Shall Not Be Denied” suffrage exhibition, shared with Smithsonian.com that she hopes this transcription project will provide individuals an opportunity to “engage with our collections and feel a connection with the suffragists.”
Volunteers have already helped the library transcribe more than 4,200 documents. This is great progress, but there’s still a long way to go. The library still needs to transcribe thousands of other documents. If you’re interested in lending a helping hand, you can donate your time and energy to the project. You’ll be a part of helping uncover a part of history. It doesn’t get any better than that.