In 1848, pioneering feminist Margaret Fuller insisted that “every arbitrary barrier” to women’s progress be tossed aside, declaring, “We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man.”
The pronouncement by Fuller, a leader in the transcendentalist movement centered in Concord, succinctly described the vision of the then incipient women’s rights movement. Seen from afar, it also captures the spirit of centuries of Concord women — from reformers and artists to writers and athletes — who have helped redefine perceptions of what women can be and do.
Now, to mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote, Concord Museum is launching a temporary exhibition celebrating the contributions of those local women to the suffrage movement and the larger cause of advancing the rights of women.
“The people you encounter in the gallery are women of Concord who have been intent on achievements in a broad range of undertakings,” said the museum’s curator, David Wood.
Displaying photos and artifacts, the exhibit tells the stories of famous 19th- and early 20th-century Concord women, from Fuller and novelist Louisa May Alcott to painter Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts and abolitionist Mary Merrick Brooks, along with lesser-known figures like Ellen Garrison, a Black anti-slavery activist who later taught freed slaves in the South.
The exhibit also celebrates present-day Concord women who have advanced the cause of gender equality, ranging from Samantha Power, former US Ambassador to the United Nations and now administrator of the US Agency for International Development, to presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to Anna Park, a local high school student who at age 10 raised thousands of dollars to support schoolchildren in Guatemala.
“We not only offer this history but we bring it up to the present moment,” said Tom Putnam, the museum’s executive director, “showing all these groundbreaking women from Concord who are fulfilling Margaret Fuller’s vision, pursuing careers that might previously have been blocked for women.”
Opened May 7 — in time for Mother’s Day May 9 — and extending through Nov. 7, “Every Path Laid Open: Women of Concord and the Quest for Equality” was originally intended for last summer — the amendment passed Aug. 18, 1920 — but was postponed because of COVID-19.
While the museum has included women in its past exhibitions, this marks the first where they are taking center stage. Not all those featured reside or lived in the town, but all had or have deep connections to it.
Fuller, for example, never lived in Concord, but made frequent visits to the home of her friend and fellow transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Fuller edited a magazine that published the works of Emerson and his fellow Concord resident, Henry David Thoreau.
Organizers say the Concord women brought both innovative talent and a courageous spirit to their work.
“Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts is a painter of really extraordinary ability. It’s the kind of flashy brushwork we tend to associate with painters like John Singer Sargent,” Wood said. “Her skills are very evident but also her determination to live the life of an artist, which for women in the early 20th century was not an easy thing to do.”
As a journalist, Fuller was the first woman to serve as a wartime correspondent for a major newspaper, covering the 1848 revolution in Italy for the New-York Tribune, according to Erica Lome, an associate curator at the museum. “She was one of the great minds of her generation.”
The exhibit highlights other “firsts” among Concord women. Anne Rainsford French Bush in 1900 became the first woman in the nation to receive a driver’s license. Alcott was the first woman to register to vote in Concord after Massachusetts in 1879 made it legal for women to vote in school committee elections.
“No bolt fell on our audacious heads, no earthquake shook the town,” Alcott wrote, after registering.
Lome said she is struck by the “sense of continuity” among the women from different eras.
For example, the exhibit displays a quilt that 96 women stitched for a friend in 1847 — a time when quilt-making was an accepted way for women to gather outside the home — and another quilt created by Concord women in 1975 honoring the town on the 200th anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord.
“Quilt-making is a tradition they wanted to maintain on such an occasion,” Lome said of the women in 1975. “It was a wonderful tribute to all the women who came before them and those who came after.”
Lome also noted how Thoreau’s sister, Sophia Thoreau, an artist, botanist, and anti-slavery activist in her own right, took the time to preserve more than 100 artifacts related to her family, items now in the museum’s collection.
“It’s another example of women throughout history maintaining these links to the past, doing it in a material way,” Lome said.
Motherhood is not a theme of the exhibit, but Lome said there are several examples of mothers influencing daughters to join them in their reformist work.
Thoreau’s mother, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, inspired her daughters, Helen and Sophia, to follow in her footsteps as an anti-slavery activist. Lydian Emerson, the wife of Ralph Waldo Emerson, similarly paved the way for her daughter, Ellen, to take up the abolitionist cause.
Despite their individual accomplishments, Lome said many of the women saw coalition-building as vital to realizing change.
“One of the lessons of the exhibit is that you can’t achieve real change by yourself,” she said.
Noting that the quest for gender equality remains unfinished, Putnam said, “We hope the exhibition will inspire the next generation of young women or girls in Concord to continue to explore these new paths.”
In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum is planning a series of women-themed programs, including forums, films, and walking tours.
For more information, go to concordmuseum.org.
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.