Fighting for what they believe in is not new for women in America. During the Women’s Suffrage Movement, courageous women stood up for themselves and fought for their right to vote, and in the wake of President Trump’s inauguration, streets were flooded with protesters wearing pink and waving homemade signs in what is thought to be one of the largest one-day marches in history. An exhibit in the National Archives Museum was promoted with the intention of highlighting and celebrating this tradition of activism. Instead, censorship of the protesters sparked a conversation about historical objectivity and freedom of speech.
A photograph of the massive Women’s March crowd in front of the Capitol in D.C. was selected for a promotional display of the museum’s “Rightfully Hers” exhibit. Shown beside a photograph of the women’s suffrage protests in 1913, the display aimed to show the accomplishments of women fighting for what should be theirs. It was supposed to exemplify how women have refused to be silenced in the fight for equality, both historically and currently, but there was one major issue with the display. The words ‘Trump,’ ‘vagina,’ and ‘pussy’ as well as images of female genitalia were blurred in the Archives’ efforts to be bipartisan. After receiving backlash for this decision, the Archives apologized and announced it is working on restoring the photo to its original.
Despite the apology, this censorship begs the question: What were the women marching for if not for the right to make history, bluntly and in the manner which they intended? While it’s understandable for the Archives to want to remain objective by not promoting anti-Trump messages, altering the image is ultimately disrespectful to the women who went out and fought for their views. Not only do these women have the right to protest Donald Trump through their own signs, these messages are how they wanted their involvement that day to be remembered. No person holding public office, not even the president, is entitled to protection when it comes to the documentation of history.
Although the intent may have been objectivity, it is hard to view the Archives’ choice as neutral. The editing is undoubtedly skewed to shield the president’s reputation. To claim objectivity, the Archives should have depicted this historical event as it occurred. The current political climate is partially defined by strong differences in thoughts about women’s reproductive rights and some citizens’ opinions about the president. It is important for the state of our country today to be accurately documented and for those who marched to be honored, regardless of the beliefs motivating them.
The goal of the “Rightfully Hers” exhibit was to show the resemblance between two photos of women fighting for themselves, and it is reassuring to know that women today are still relentlessly supporting their causes. Participants in the Women’s March may be criticized, just as the Women’s Suffrage protesters were, but the improvements that came from that movement can continue to be an inspiration for this one. Had it not been for the women in the 1840’s who dared to challenge our patriarchal government, none of the self-representation so perfectly captured in that photograph would be possible today.
Joe Hiem at the Washington Post immediately brought the issue to light. Heim asked Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley about the matter, to which he responded, “to confuse the public is reprehensible…a lot of history is messy, and there’s zero reason why the Archives can’t be upfront about a photo from a women’s march.” People are rallying around the right to represent the Women’s March in its authentic form, and the Archives’ apology is certainly a step in the right direction.
Nevertheless, the changes did happen. The effort to protect one side of politics over another was wrong, and it is disheartening that this is a mistake that has to be fixed. Ideally, history is meant to be represented as equally as possible, and it was a lack of equality that prompted the women's marches during the Women's Suffrage Movement in the first place. What does this mean about our society in general, if women’s voices are still being silenced? The women were protesting their voice not being heard, and what is it met with? Their voices silenced once again just a few years later.
The ACLU released an article about how unjust the censorship truly is, describing the wrongdoings of the organization perfectly. Louise Melling wrote, “Controversy is central to a robust democracy. If we begin to let the government [alter] history to make it more comfortable or less controversial, we set ourselves on a destructive path.”
This ‘robust democracy’ has been tested during the current presidency and again during this incident at the National Archives. When groups like the ACLU or individual Americans point out actions such as these, that is how our democracy thrives. Every American should feel inspired to follow suit, as it was issues like these that led the Founding Fathers to form this country, independent of controlling powers. Our country was built on the right to be free to represent our opinions, and to have differences and debate about them. The equal representation of those differences is what is at stake, something that could make all of the hard work of those before us crumble down, but only if we let it.