Enough with the yellow wallpaper already

All about the Wallpaper:

The Erasure of Women’s Political Organizing in Domestic Spaces

by Jennifer R. Myhre, Ph.D., De Anza College, 2008

Politics is housekeeping on a grand scale.—Jane Addams, 1919

I have over a half of dozen pictures of chairs from a two week long road trip in 2007 traveling the U.S. women’s suffrage movement.  Chairs.  I have no particular interest in chairs as a piece of furniture, or the craft of making chairs, or the symbolism of chairs.  Nonetheless, I have several photographs of chairs—chairs that Susan B. Anthony once sat in, that Elizabeth Cady Stanton plopped down in, that Frederick Douglass occupied, that Alice Paul ruminated in.  Admittedly, Stanton’s dark green chaise is a beautiful piece but I was surprised to find a picture of it in my collection of photographs from the trip.  So, why chairs?

Each summer, my best friend and I have been cramming ourselves and her two kids into a rented minivan to take what we have been calling our “Freedom Summer” tours.  We began with the civil rights movement in the summer of 2006 and followed that up in 2007 with the women’s suffrage movement.  During our civil rights freedom summer, we visited seven different museums in three states dedicated to the history of civil rights activism.  During our women’s suffrage freedom summer, we visited seven different houses in two states that key figures in feminist activism had once lived in.






In these houses, I learned about the wallpaper, the dishware, the wainscoting, the design of the fireplaces, the rugs, the molding, and the appliances of the time period.  I learned which room Elizabeth Stanton would have entertained guests in, and where she would have cared for her children.  Susan B. Anthony babysat for Stanton so that she would have a little time to write, so much so that Cady Stanton’s children referred to her as “Aunt Susan.”  In Susan B. Anthony’s former house, I learned that, as a Quaker, she usually dressed plainly but wore a red scarf in her later years.  I took a picture of the giant clawfooted tub where Anthony bathed.

What didn’t I learn?  Susan B. Anthony and her sisters were arrested in the parlor of her own home on November 18, 1872 after they voted in the general election on November 5, probably right in front of this fireplace.  She was not permitted to speak in her own defense at the trial.  The judge illegally ordered the jury to find the defendant guilty, which they did.  Anthony was denied a new trial even though she had not received a fair jury trial and was ordered to pay a $100 fine.  She never paid, maintaining “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.”


In the summer of 1848, Jane Hunt invited her friends Martha Wright, Mary Ann M’Clintock, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton over to tea with Martha’s visiting sister, Lucretia Mott (Klees 1998).  Mott and Stanton had met over shared frustration at being refused seats as delegates at the World Anti-Slavery convention in London in 1840.  They were prohibited from participating in the convention because they were women.  Eight years later, Jane, Martha, Many Ann, Elizabeth and Susan chatted over finger sandwiches and cups of tea at Jane’s home.

What did they chat about?  They shared their anger at women’s exclusion from the important institutions of society and their experiences with sexism in the temperance and anti-slavery movements in which they participated.  Of this meeting, Cady Stanton later wrote, “I poured out the torrent of my long accumulating discontent with such violence and indignation that I stirred myself, as well as the rest of the part, to do and dare anything” (Klees 1998, p. 52).  That afternoon wrote up a notice for a Women’s Rights Convention to run as an advertisement in the Seneca Falls Courier on July 14.  Several days later, they met again at Mary Ann’s home to prepare the agenda for the convention.  This agenda, modeled after the Declaration of Independence, became the “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments.”  These women planned a revolution around the dining table.

The Hunt and McClintock houses, owned by the Park Service, weren’t open to visitors when we were in Seneca Falls so the best I could do was press my nose up against the class and imagine where the planners of the convention might have sat, fomenting rebellion.  (I was harassed by men in a truck on my walk to take photographs of the two homes.)


There is no museum dedicated to women’s activism in the suffrage movement in the U.S.  The U.S. National Park Service has built a historic park at the former site of the Wesleyan Chapel, where the first Women’s Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848.  It has the shell of the chapel itself and a lovely water wall with the full text of the Declaration of Sentiments.  Next door is a museum dedicated to the history of women’s rights in the U.S. over the last two centuries.  It is not a museum dedicated to women’s political activism.  If I lived near Seneca Falls, I would send students in an Introduction to Women’s Studies there for a basic outline of women’s status in society for the last two centuries.  But it wouldn’t fit the bill if I wanted them to learn about the history of women’s political organizing in the U.S. over the last two centuries.  There is no place to go to learn about the history of women’s political organizing in the U.S. over the last two centuries.

(Don’t get me wrong—I loved that museum.  It took each of the issues raised in the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments and carried them through to the current day, examining the kinds of issues covered in an intro class: work, family, appearance, violence, religion, etc.  It captured the intersectional nature of women’s experiences, addressing how would have been differentially affected by sexism depending on their class and racial positions.  It was a multimedia, interactive museum that fully involved the kids.  Sophie actually said “that was fun!” after visiting the museum, a miracle.  Sophie and Kellum earned Junior Ranger badges in women’s rights.  Like the civil rights museums we had visited during the summer prior, it left out how the group on top—in this case, men—benefited from sexism—but over all it was a comprehensive introduction to the social conditions of women in the U.S.  It just wasn’t a comprehensive overview of women’s activism and resistance.)

We soon realized that we would have to do all of the “curriculum” about women’s suffrage activism on our own.  Johanna and I started reading in earnest: Emerson Klees’ The Women’s Rights Movement and the Finger Lakes Region, Eleanor Clift’s Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment, Jean H. Baker’s Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists, Sally Roesch Wagner’s Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee Influence on Early American Feminists, and Doris Stevens’ Jailed For Freedom.  We tried to share details with Sophie and Kellum whenever we could and we read from the few children’s books we had picked up on suffragists.  We designed a “Find the Suffragist” bingo game for the kids to do while watching the two hour long adult documentary One Woman, One Vote.  We played “On a Star in the Car,” our version of I Spy in which we referenced the feminist activists we had placed on giant stars and hung all around in the inside of the car.  When they watched the A&E Biography on Frederick Douglass, we filled in the gaps about his activism on behalf of women’s rights.  We sat with the kids while they watched Iron-Jawed Angels and tried to explain why the guards were forcing jailed suffragists mouths open.  On our side trip to Niagara Falls we even tried to help the kids think through the cheesy tourist movie shown in the Visitor’s Center, discussing with them why Lelawala, the Maid of the Mist, a young indigenous woman, might want to go over the falls and become “one with the spirits” than be forcibly married to an older man.  We played our recently acquired “Free to Be You and Me” and Sweet Honey in the Rock children’s albums on the cd player in the car.  We made Sophie and Kellum make political speeches under the roof of the Wesleyan Chapel.  We played Charades and acted out key scenes in the women’s suffrage movement.


I learned about the ice box in Frederick Douglass’ house and the hand-stitched pillows his second wife had made reading, “Two’s company; Three’s a crowd.”  At Mary McLeod Bethune’s house, we were told that she laid down red carpet in the house to make the women who visited feel like royalty.  It was “Art and Architecture” day at the Sewall-Belmont House when we visited the home of the National Woman’s Party hoping it would be the highlight of our trip.  I learned all about the paintings and the fireplaces.  I found myself enraged—why do they even have an “Art and Architecture” day at the site of some of the most militant feminist organizing in U.S. history?  There was NO TEXT anywhere in the house—no content whatsoever about the suffrage movement.

In the late years of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement, the National American Woman Suffrage Association had a home that served as its headquarters, referred to as the Suffrage House, and the first woman elected to Congress, Jeannette Rankin, lived there during her stint as a Congresswoman (Clift 2003).  The most militant of the suffrage organizations, the National Woman’s Party, had its headquarters in a series of homes.  Alice Paul, its leader, slept and ate and bathed and ran the Party’s nonviolent resistance campaigns in these homes.  Alice Paul led the precursor to the National Woman’s Party, an organization called the Congressional Union, in meetings in her brownstone across from Lafayette Park (Clift 2003).  Militant suffragists referred to this home as “The Little White House.”

Women had only to walk across the park from this brownstone wearing their purple, white and gold sashes to form their picket lines in front of the White House beginning in January 1917 and continuing for a year and half.  It was in this home that activists in the Party decided to use Woodrow Wilson’s own words on their banners: “We shall fight for the things which we have always held nearest our hearts—for democracy—for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments.”  It was in this home that organizers gathered wave after wave of picketers as the Wilson administration ordered them arrested on trumped up charges of obstructing traffic.  It was this home to which activists retreated when men rioted against them after they unfurled a banner reading “Kaiser Wilson—Take the Beam Out of your Own Eye!”  It was this home in which activists cleaned and bandaged each other wounds after sailors and police officers beat them to the ground.  It was in this home that activists stitched and sowed new banners when theirs were torn and damaged by anti-suffragist men.  It was in this home that activists strategized about how to inform the public about prison brutality perpetrated on the hunger striking political prisoners arrested for the suffrage pickets.  It was in this home that the activists broke their fast by sipping hot milk the evening they were released from prison.   It was in this home that activists decided to wear black armbands signifying “the death of justice” after being repeatedly arrested and not charged for picketing Capitol Hill.

Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt Belmont raised money for the suffrage movement in her home.  Belmont had formerly been married to one of the Vanderbilts and divorced him when she caught him cheating on her.  She won a major divorce settlement and used huge sums of it to fund the suffrage movement in the 20th century.  It was she who commissioned the “Votes for Women” tea set, in honor of that original tea party in the home of Jane Hunt to plan the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention.  After Alva Belmont inherited her second husband’s estate, the Belmont House became the new headquarters for the National Woman’s Party.

Throughout the trip, though, I found myself growing increasingly angry at the many, many erasures of women’s political lives we experienced visiting the only sites available for memorializing the suffrage movement.  Early in our trip, my journal entry after visiting Susan B. Anthony’s home, read “These house tours are odd—talking about the furniture and who lived in what room.  Why not give more biographic information?”  By the next week, Johanna and I were bitterly joking that we had heard enough about the damn wallpaper.  We had both read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist classic “The Yellow Wallpaper” as women’s studies minors in college, in which the protagonist is confined to her room, going slowly mad because she is not permitted to exercise her mind and creativity.  The protagonist expresses her frustration and outrage by slowing peeling away at the yellow wallpaper of her bedroom prison.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman must be rolling in her grave at all of this misplaced attention on the wallpaper rather than the political rebellion committed by the activists inside the rooms surrounded by that wallpaper.

With so much revolutionary action taking place in these homes, one might wonder why our tour guides informed us about the wallpaper.  We had no museums to go to for our suffrage movement tour, so we were relying on the historic homes of suffrage activists to educate us and the kids about the movement.  Instead, we learned about representative furniture of the time period, and Susan B. Anthony’s alligator purse.  Not only did our tour guides not take the opportunity to educate us about the historically significant political activism that occurred in the homes we visited, but we rarely learned significant biographical details about the lives of these political figures.  It was as if the feminized, domestic space of the home had spirited away all talk of politics.  Domesticity had rendered politics invisible.

This might not have seemed so odd, so deeply offensive, if it weren’t for the fact that during the time period we were studying women weren’t permitted a public life.  The ideology of “separate spheres” made public space a masculine space and public life a masculine endeavor, while women were expected to remain in the feminized space of the home, of the private sphere.  So of necessity, women’s political organizing took place in homes.  Of necessity, women organized around tables and over food and drink, while caring for children at the same time.  The home would have been the center of women’s political lives.