As the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage approached, Texas Woman’s University professor Meg Griffiths wondered what her contemporaries thought about the right to vote.
She workshopped an idea with a friend and fellow photographer, Frances Jakubek, director of exhibitions and operations at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York City. What if they invited their female peers — fine art photographers — to train their lenses on a subject connected to the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in August 1920
“Frances and I were at the big AIPAD show [the Association of International Photography Art Dealers competition] and we were talking about doing something in response to the 19th Amendment,” said Griffiths, a photography professor at TWU. “We decided to invite some photographers to join the project.”
The invitation went out to 200 women.
Those invitations became ”A Yellow Rose Project,” a collaboration of 105 female photographers across the U.S. reflecting on and responding to the amendment. Named for the yellow roses that women’s suffrage supporters wore to show their support for the movement, the collaboration was meant to be virtual even before COVID-19.
“This all began as wanted to have a resource, a reaction to the 19th Amendment, for everyone who has a computer or a phone,” Griffiths said. “Having this as a book or a show in a museum, you’d need some sort of privileges to access it. We wanted people to be able to see the work with a phone or a tablet or something like that.”
Jakubek and Griffiths sent invitations for the project in 2019, to give photographers a year to create and submit work to the project.
Jakubek said photographs command a different kind of credibility than paintings or sculpture.
“We consider a photograph to be a document of something and it’s the truth whether it is or not,” she said. “I’m fascinated with the idea of captioning, that you’re supposed to believe what the caption says. I’m interested in what sort of trouble you can get into by declaring something as truth. It’s been a fight to have [photography] accepted as art because of that. It’s ‘this is reproduction.’ I think photography — as the inception as an art form, as a medium has always been this sort of documentarian thing that is compared to being an art form.”
Griffiths and Jakubek said photographers produced everything from portraits to still-life photographs, and some artists riffed on the all-American political protest.
“I wondered if we would see a lot of images of protests, because when you think about it, we have seen a lot of protest in the last four years,” Griffiths said. “I worried that we might get a lot of images from the women’s marches that have happened every year since 2016. And we did get some of that. But just as many photographers took intimate shots of their children, their environment.”
“I feel like we were always a little nervous we were going to see all protest-related work,” she said. “There were so many protests but I think we were really surprised about the intimacy of all the entries. The daily lives, and their children and how they teach their children. Alice Hargrave, who has always been environmentally aware in her work, did a piece, Suffragette Bird, about the last surviving passenger pigeon that went extinct. She’s focusing on the vocalizations of these birds and relating that to the voices of American women expressed through the vote. It’s really deep and beautiful.”
Griffiths said the photographs reminded her that “this isn’t a celebration for everyone.” For women of color, access to the vote has been challenged by institutional power, and the more diffused influences of economics and racism. Some of the portraits earn new layers of meaning as the news cycle reflects newfound power — New Mexico elected women of color to represent its three congressional districts this week, and for the first time in the state’s history. For an election season roiled by arguments about voter suppression in communities where large numbers of women of color live and work and accusations of voter fraud, women’s votes are weighed between illegitimacy and prophetic power.
“We saw women stitching and crafting, literally stitching, over their photos,” Griffiths said. “We saw that there was a lot of work in this project that is talking about women who have been left out of history.”
The photographers used the camera to recall the struggle some women still have to embrace full civic participation. Sarah Hoskins’ images depict an oft-overlooked community — Black women’s groups with deep roots. Hoskins photographed the Sisters Benevolent, a group of Black women in Kentucky founded in 1905. The group pulled together to maintain a bathroom in a hair salon so that Black women could reach a bathroom on the way home from work during an era when many public restrooms weren’t open to anyone other than white people. Keller photographer Farah Janjua shares photographs of women in the Muslim world, and Susan Rosenberg considered women in activist roles in New York City.
Griffiths said the project, which has earned national and international press as well as upcoming exhibits, has done what the 19th Amendment did 100 years ago: It has cast a vision into the future.
“This is going to be an umbrella for more projects,” Griffiths said. “After the anti-racism protests that have been going on, Frances and I have talked about working on something that brings women of color into this in a more prominent way. I think we’ve been having the same conversations as so many other people. I think we’re going to do something to promote the art of women of color.”