Carnegie Mellon University

A photo of Lisa Tetrault

October 23, 2020

Reframing a Movement

By Stefanie Johndrow

& Abby Simmons

Abby Simmons
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • 412-268-6094

As the United States celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment in 2020, Lisa Tetrault, associate professor of history and a leading scholar of women's suffrage, has been at the forefront of projects nationwide to inform and remind the public that the fight for voting access was a long, multi-generational movement fueled by diverse, complex women that remains unfinished and ongoing.

When the first major exhibit for the centennial opened in March 2019 at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, Tetrault delivered the exhibition's keynote address and penned the lead essay in the exhibition's catalog, Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence.

As initiatives and commemorative events unfolded across the nation, Tetrault was soon speaking in two or more cities a week, a pace that oddly accelerated after the pandemic, when "virtual travel" made it possible to be in even more places at once.

The downside of the turn to virtual was missing openings of major exhibits for which she'd consulted, including at the National Constitution Center, where rather than appearing with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, soccer legend Abby Wambach, and others, she had to occupy an adjacent screen square — not quite the same thing.

The festivities planned around HBO's new documentary, "Soul of America," in which Tetrault tells a story of women's voting, alongside interviews with civil rights legend John Lewis, George Takei and others, are also canceled. The documentary is based on John Meacham's best-selling book — by the same name — and premieres at 9 p.m. Oct. 27 on HBO Max.

Tetrault also served as historical consultant for other flagship projects, including at the Woodrow Wilson House, on, and for the documentary "The Vote," which aired on PBS's "American Experience." Her work has been featured by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Bar Association, The New York Times, NBC News, Time Magazine, NPR's On Point and more.

A Schlesinger Library Long 19th Amendment Fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Tetrault researched for her innovative genealogy of the amendment, casting it in a new light that reframes a story we think we know. Joined by few other scholars, Tetrault also worked with the library, funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to organize a major conference around women and voting, "Voting Matters," as well as to launch The Long 19th Amendment Project Portal, a digital gateway to archival collections, teaching materials, and scholarship that help to tell a more complex, inclusive story about gender and voting rights in America.

Dispelling myths

As she did in her prize-winning book "The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women's Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898," Tetrault has been busily dispelling several widespread misunderstandings about the so-called women's suffrage amendment. The 19th Amendment did not, Tetrault explains, grant women the right to vote — as is commonly claimed.

In an Aug. 22 op-ed for the New York Daily News, Tetrault writes, "The lie at the heart of the suffrage centennial compounds a much broader lie, at the heart of American democracy: Women never won the right to vote — not in 1920, not ever — because even today no U.S. citizen has a federally guaranteed right to vote." Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. Constitution affirms no citizen's voting right, and the 19th Amendment did nothing to change that.

Emphasizing state governance over voting, Tetrault repositions the 19th Amendment not as an end, but as the middle of an unfinished story. This helps center women of color and reminds us how race, too, stands at the heart of this ongoing story.

Her current and previous work has been the staple of podcasts, from "Call Your Girlfriend" to "Professor Buzzkill."

"It's hard to pick from among the many special anniversary podcasts," Tetrault said, "but perhaps my favorite is 'And Nothing Less,' hosted by Rosario Dawson and Retta," where Tetrault's voice gets ample play.

Since her path-breaking book, stories about women's suffrage can no longer begin without an extended discussion of her work dispelling Seneca Falls as the birthplace of that campaign.

Involving students

Throughout her time at CMU, Tetrault, an award-winning teacher, has engaged students in deeper learning about voting rights — both in and out of the classroom.

Jennifer Schneider, who graduated in 2014 with a double major in instrumental performance, guitar; and history, took courses with Tetrault and later landed a job with the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative. They joyfully reunited at the opening gala for the National Portrait Gallery's exhibit.

Nearly a year later, as the last major exhibit in Washington, D.C., opened at the Smithsonian National American History Museum, Tetrault again reunited with Schneider and also invited two other former students to join her at the small opening party.

"I thought it would be fun for them to see their research efforts reflected in a major public history launch," Tetrault said.

Priya Agarwal, who graduated in 2021 with a major in ethics, history and public policy, and Chloe Thompson, who graduated in 2016 with a double major in global studies and Hispanic studies, were both living in D.C. and had done research for Tetrault through the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Science's Research Training Program.

"Walking through the exhibits, Professor Tetrault pointed out all the corrections and edits her work had contributed to the story, and it was incredible to see evidence of all the topics I'd spent a semester studying on display at such a prestigious institution," Agarwal said. "After working on the Hill last summer as a Congressional intern I'd seen several legislators in passing before, but it was a completely different experience to see Speaker Pelosi come in through the door five feet away from me. Hearing her speak from up close in a room filled with powerful women is definitely something I will remember for the rest of my life."

A week later, Tetrault was grounded as COVID-19 restrictions grew. But it hasn't dimmed her light. In September, she spoke in Pittsburgh, delivering the Constitution Day 2020 talk "When Women Won the Right to Vote — A History Unfinished," sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University Libraries and the Division of Student Affairs.

This fall she is also co-teaching a Grand Challenge Seminar for first-year students titled "How We Vote" with Teddy Seidenfeld, the Herbert A. Simon Professor of Philosophy and Statistics, and Aaditya Ramdas, assistant professor of statistics and machine learning. Agarwal is serving as the course's teaching assistant. Using the 2020 election cycle as their laboratory, the faculty members are helping students, many who will be first-time eligible voters, to build their skills as new democratic citizens and help them make sense of the history-making U.S. news cycle.

While centennial celebrations are winding down, there are still a few more events where Tetrault will speak. All are welcome to register for her public talk "When Women Won the Right to Vote: A History Unfinished" at noon ET on Friday, Oct. 23. The talk is sponsored by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Tetrault will also participate in a virtual, public panel discussion at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum Conference, "Expanding Democracy: The 19th Amendment and Voting Rights Today," held 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. ET on Oct. 28.

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