The Cambridge Historic School Museum is reopening to visitors in July, with a new exhibit honoring the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
The museum, located 213 South St. in Cambridge, will be open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., July 4 through the end of October.
The museum’s new Women’s Suffrage collection celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S Constitution, ratified Aug. 18, 1920, that gave women the right to vote.
Cambridge Historic School Foundation Vice President Margaret “Peg” Sullivan spent six months curating the exhibit.
Sullivan said Wisconsin was the first U.S. State to ratify the 19th Amendment, and that Cambridge had a strong group of suffragettes.
Forty-one women from Cambridge voted in the first election after women earned the right to vote, Sullivan said.
The exhibit tells the story of those women — when they were born, when they died and anything Sullivan could find about their lives.
“They’re wonderful women,” Sullivan said. “Descendants of these women should be very proud.”
The exhibit features wall hangings of each woman who voted, photos of them and information on their lives. It also features artifacts from the era, and replicates of the early-20th Century white dresses suffragettes wore that became symbolic of the movement.
Sullivan said women would don white dresses and hold parades across the country advocating for suffrage. Cambridge held parades like this in 1914, Sullivan said.
“It didn’t even dawn on me that we had suffrage parades here in town,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said it was moving to research these women. Even though they lived a century ago, they were relatable, she said.
“They weren’t affluent women, they’re not exceptional, and yet they capture...every woman’s story,” Sullivan said. “They made things happen, they were educators, they were shop owners. They were women you can parallel to people today.”
One of those women was Stella Lillesand. Sullivan was moved by Lillesand’s story after having the chance to meet her, while Sullivan worked for the Cambridge News from 1976-1980.
Lillesand spent her life caring for her mother and brother, ran a business in town, and got involved in women’s suffrage.
“She was the most charming, lovely woman,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said she felt like she got to know these women through the exhibit, and was impressed by their tenacity.
“You think about the struggle, the women who devoted themselves, 72 years, to working on trying to get the vote,“ Sullivan said. “’Come hell or high water, we’re going to vote.’”
Sullivan spent the winter combing through U.S. Census data, visiting the Wisconsin State Historical Society and thumbing through old newspapers.
“Finding information on women is incredibly difficult. There’s just not a lot that was documented,” Sullivan said.
After Sullivan came up with the idea for the exhibit, Russ Amacher, curator and researcher for the Cambridge Historic School Museum, unearthed voter registration information from 1920.
From there, Sullivan said she tracked down photos and data about each of the women.
“It struck me, 100 years isn’t that long ago,” Sullivan said. “It wasn’t that long ago that women finally got to vote. I would’ve probably been on the street marching too.”
The Historic School Museum’s hours of operation are limited to one day a week this summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Patrons will be asked to wear masks, social distance and avoid touching the dresses on display. Sullivan said she will be wiping down the exhibit between visitors.