Elizabeth Hohl, Ph. D., commenced her “History Bites: Women’s Rights are Human Rights” presentation at the Fairfield Museum and History Center on Thursday, March 23 with a joyful declaration.
“Happy Women’s History Month!” Hohl exclaimed.
In her introduction, Hohl read from this year’s “Proclamation of Women’s History Month.” The proclamation, signed by President Joe Biden, designates March as a month to “celebrate the countless women who have fought tirelessly and courageously for equality, justice and opportunity for women and girls and the United States and around the world.”
According to an article published by the National Women’s History Museum, Women’s History Month began as Women’s History Week.
“In 1980, a consortium of women’s groups and historians—led by the National Women’s History Project (now the National Women’s History Alliance)—successfully lobbied for national recognition,” the article states.
President Jimmy Carter declared the Week of March 8, 1980, as National Women’s History Week. Seven years later, Congress passed Public Law 100-9 to distinguish the entirety of March as Women’s History Month.
Each year, the National Women’s Alliance publishes an official theme. Their website announced the 2023 theme as “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.”
“The timely theme honors women in every community who have devoted their lives and talents to producing art, pursuing truth and reflecting the human condition decade after decade,” the Alliance shared.
The current exhibition at the Walsh Gallery of Fairfield University’s Art Museum, “Women’s Rights are Human Rights,” underscores the power of artistic expression in activating the fight for equality and the elimination of gender stereotypes.
The exhibition includes seventy-nine women’s rights and advocacy posters from around the world. It was organized and curated by Elizabeth Resnick, Professor Emerita of Graphic Design at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
Resnick commented on the intended message of the selected artwork.
“In their collective visual voice, these posters promote women’s empowerment and participation in society while challenging religious and cultural norms and patriarchal attitudes that subordinate, stigmatize or restrict women from achieving their full potential,” Resnick explained.
Hohl, an Assistant Professor of the Practice in the Department of History, joins a group of faculty co-curators from Fairfield’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program.
In addition to Hohl, the team includes Rachelle Brunn-Bevel, Ph.D., Johanna Garvey, Ph. D. and Anna Lawrence, Ph.D.
Carey Mack Weber, the Frank and Clara Meditz Executive Director of the Fairfield Art Museum, demonstrated her gratitude for the curation staff in the Director’s Foreword featured in the exhibition’s catalog.
Weber thanked the individuals, who “worked with the museum staff to further curate the exhibition to fit our space, and expanded the existing wall labels according to their areas of interest and expertise.”
During Thursday’s discussion, Hohl provided a glimpse into the exhibition by displaying and discussing posters from the collection.
First, Hohl framed her speech by outlining the broader significance of the exhibition’s title.
The emergence of human rights discourse can be traced back to the eighteenth century. Hohl considered the research historian Lynn Hunt, who described human rights from the perspective of Enlightenment thinkers.
Hunt illustrated that, “‘human rights requires three interlocking qualities: [they] must be natural (inherent in each person) … equal (the same for everyone, regardless of race, class, gender and other facets of identity and universal (applicable across geographical boundaries).’”
Hohl also cited key female figures who have shaped the course of United States history.
Hohl noted that in 1948, “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came to fruition under the expert leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt—a document that many groups sought for decades, including the National Women’s Party,” a political organization created to achieve women’s suffrage.
Hohl also examined Hillary Clinton’s 1995 address at the United Nations Fourth World Conference in Beijing.
Clinton emphasized that “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference it is that … human rights are women’s rights … and women’s rights are human rights.”
Yet, Hohl acknowledged that “despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the many documents that followed, the failure to respect women’s human rights materialized in countless ways: discriminatory practices in education, employment, health care as well as inadequate representation, voter suppression, damaging stereotypes and violence.”
The exhibition seeks to amplify “these issues as well as messages of hope and empowerment visible through a feminist lens,” Hohl reiterated.
Hohl continued, expounding that “feminists aimed to end all forms of oppression because, as Fannie Lou Hamer declared: ‘Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.’”
The Fairfield Museum and History Center supplied colorful notecards and pencils for audience members, who were invited to contemplate and comment on the display of posters. Hohl facilitated the dialogue, which elicited poignant responses that confirmed Hohl’s belief that “the legacy of feminist resistance is manifested in the poster art of our exhibition.”
This first poster, created by French artists Julie Ruffin and Sabrina Benlemqawanssa, was designed to endorse women’s right to education.
The poster depicts an image with dual meaning. The striking illustration, set on a black background, portrays a fountain pen that is reminiscent of the shape of a woman’s body. The poster’s text reads “Éduquer Ne Se Conjugue Pas Assez Au Féminin,” which translates from French to “Educating is Not Conjugated Enough in the Feminine.”
The phrase is a nod to the grammatical variations of the French language and alludes to issues of illiteracy among women. Hohl contextualized this issue, mentioning a 2019 United Nations report that revealed: “750 million adults could not read and write a simple statement [and] two-thirds of those adults were women.”
Globally, activists continue to expose and address such injustices. Hohl referenced Malala Yousafzai, who bravely campaigned for the education of Pakistani girls, and illuminated that “the global struggle for women’s right to control their own bodies is repeatedly displayed in these posters.”
The second poster, “Leave My Body Alone” by Canadian artist Anita Kunz, is a startling rendering of these struggles. The stomach of the headless body of a naked woman has been transformed, overtaken by an enormous mouth. The mouth is open wide and accompanied by the poster’s exclamatory title, which is scrawled in a white font.
Hohl observed that “the shout comes from the gut rather than her mouth—a different version of a full-throated scream,” which could be identified as a cry for help as “laws, policies and practices are spinning out of control [and] horror stories [are] abound on the news.”
The posters showcased at the “History Bites: Women’s Rights are Human Rights” represent a fraction of the entire exhibition. The audience, which encompassed both men and women, expressed their excitement to visit the full gallery.
Dr. Martha S. LoMonaco, an author and the Director of the Fairfield University’s Theatre Program, meditated on her “deeply moving and exhilarating” visit to the Walsh Gallery.
LoMonaco, the recipient of 2023 Lucy Katz Award, felt it was “complete serendipity” that the exhibition duration aligned with American Women Playwrights, her Social Justice course.
“Since theatre is all about creating powerful images—on stage and in show marketing—that convey the core social justice issues of the play, the ‘Women’s Rights are Human Rights’ posters deeply resonate with our work,” LoMonaco communicated.
Her students were able to uniquely engage with the artwork, as they “chose posters that captured the essence of plays [that they] already have read and also imagined new plays that might be written inspired by other posters.”
Maddy Kurnik, a first-year student in LoMonaco’s class, voiced her enjoyment of the trip.
“The different art styles of each poster were gorgeous, and the overall message was really powerful,” Kurnik said. “It was an amazing experience to witness this gallery with my classmates, and I would definitely go see it again.”
“The Women’s Rights are Human Rights” exhibition opened on Jan. 20 and will be on display until July 1, 2023. The exhibition is located on the Fairfield campus, within Regina A. Quick Center for the Performing Arts. It is open to the public from Tuesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and admission is free. For more information and to access a virtual tour of the exhibition, please visit https://www.fairfield.edu/museum/womens-rights/.
In closing, Hohl reminded attendees to continue developing new perspectives within the exhibition’s overarching theme of women’s human rights.
“Even when we restore the rights of everyone, how do we eliminate misogyny, racism, ethnic hostilities and other forms of prejudice?” Hohl probed.
The exhibition symbolizes the necessity of continuing the conversation of women’s rights. The importance of this sentiment is concretized by the quote highlighted in the exhibition’s marketing materials. The poster memorializes an excerpt from the journal of Audre Lorde, a civil rights activist and radical feminist. It reads, “Your silence will not protect you.”
As Women’s History Month draws to an end, Hohl urges her audience and viewers of the exhibition to reflect once more on the words of Hillary Clinton: “‘We must recognize that women will never gain full dignity until their human rights are respected and protected.’”