Wilton Historical Society’s Virtual Exhibit Celebrates Grassroots Women’s Suffrage Movement Close to Home

One hundred years ago today, people all over the nation streamed into the streets to celebrate the ratification of the 19th amendment. But decades before that celebration of women’s right to vote, strong women everywhere laid the seeds for grassroots movements–normal people demanding change in their own small towns. Wilton, though it was then still a small, farming town, was part of that change, too.

Later this month, the Wilton Historical Society will reveal its long-awaited exhibit celebrating the long period of local activism leading up to the ratification of the 19th amendment in an exciting new virtual format.

The exhibit, entitled “Citizens at Last: Hannah Ambler and Grace Schenck and the Vote,” highlights the importance of local activism of the suffragette movement through the lens of two prominent Wilton figures. Through eight different sections and a wide variety of media, it emphasizes that even the names and stories not taught in history class are essential to change–and that local stories matter.

“For myself personally, I was struck by how important grassroots movements and networking is. You can do so much on a local level that has a huge national result,” oo-director of the Wilton Historical Society Allison Sanders said. “The whole arch of the suffrage movement, which was very long, starting in the 1840s with Seneca Falls and going all the way to 1920 when everything was ratified, that’s a really long time, and the determined women who carried through with this so much of it was handled on a very local level of individual women working on changing their husbands views, educating themselves and networking with other women.”

The Details–What to Expect

Sanders and associate curator at the historical society Nick Foster said that this project has been in the works for over a year. The Historical Society initially planned to display a physical exhibit, but when the pandemic hit in early March, they knew they had to switch gears. Making an online exhibit instead would allow anyone to access the information–no matter their location or health considerations due to the pandemic.

“The research wasn’t going to change; it’s just a matter of how we’re presenting it,” Foster said, adding that this provides a whole new set of challenges and opportunities for creativity in putting it together.

Like the physical exhibit would have been, the online version will have eight sections and involve a mix of media, including text, video, music, vignettes, photographs, diary entries, newspaper clippings, and guided narration. It will cover the time period from the mid-1800s to 1920, when the Suffragette Movement was happening, through the lens of local organizations, events, and people. The Historical Society is currently in the process of finalizing the research, finishing the scripts, and filming some of the videos with the help of a videographer.

Though people will not be able to see the actual objects in-person, the Historical Society plans to imbed many documents and photographs of objects within the online exhibit to give as close to a real-feel as possible. For example, Sanders explained they will include closeups photographs of dresses they have in the collection, including a Wilton-owned Flapper Dress from the era, within the online fashion section.

Their research has been extensive, with almost everyone on the historical society team lending a hand. Both Sanders and Foster credit Julie Hughes, Wilton’s History Room Archivist, for a lot of the research, which has spanned local resources such as the Ambler Family, and state and national archives. The Elizabeth Raymond Ambler Foundation was a crucial supporter of the exhibit as well.

With these resources, the exhibit will also help people better recognize the historical significance of places in the town as well. For instance, Sanders shared that in their research, they found that a small home next to the cemetery on Route 7 by the old St. Matthews Church use to be a tea room, where women in town would host an “exchange,” purchasing women-made items from each other. They would often donate the proceeds to the club or cause sponsoring the tea, and talk about the national politics at the event. Sanders said that this gives a glimpse into just how significant these local events and environments represent were to the grassroots effort.

“That’s how so much of the suffrage movement happened underneath the national event,” Sanders explained.

Meet the Faces of the Exhibit:  Hannah Ambler and Grace Schenck

To streamline and guide their vision, the Historical Society has focused on two prominent Wilton figures, Hannah Ambler and Grace Schenck, who were both instrumental in raising awareness about the suffragette movement in town and promoting local change.

According to Sanders, at the time, many people used scrapbooks to document and track their interests of the era–similarly to how today people might use social media to track and follow information relevant to our interests. In analyzing Hannah Ambler’s diary and scrapbook, it’s clear that the suffragette movement was a passion of hers from the beginning.

Hannah Ambler was born in Wilton in 1843. She was an active member of the DAR, the Wilton Library Association and Women Equal Franchise League, and had connections to the Connecticut Women Suffrage Association and the National Women’s Suggrage Association as well. Additionally, she married a man named Charles and had two children, all while running the large operation that Ambler Farm then was. She was also the grandmother to Betty Ambler, who owned Ambler Farm before it became part of the town.

Sanders describes Ambler as a “very integral part of Wilton” who was influential on both the social life of the town and many organizations, and as someone who did much to help change public opinion about women’s roles in society. She also played an essential part in encouraging women’s exchanges.

Grace Schenck was born in 1877 in New Jersey. Sanders describes her as a “dynamo of energy,” dedicated to her work, volunteerism, and social change.

Before moving to Wilton, Schenck was a chief surgical nurse at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. When her husband Bernard, a Belgian diamond cutter, fell ill, they moved to Wilton to a large farm they named Graenest, which was located where Stop & Shop is today. She was a vibrant force in the center of Wilton and had a tangible effect on people’s lives and public opinion.

“She was really dedicated to volunteer work. She was a founding member of the Women Civic League, she was a charter member of the Garden Club, during World War One she headed Wilton’s local chapter of the Red Cross, and she was one of the founders of the Wilton Equal Franchise League,” Sanders said. “She really got to know all of Wilton’s politically and socially active women, and that would have included Hannah Ambler and Hannah’s sister Elizabeth Raymond.”

However, perhaps what’s most intriguing about Ambler, Schenck, and their peers is not the impact they wound up having on the town, but the fact that they made this impact simply by standing up. According to Foster, they represented how “normal” people, no matter their status, platform, or circumstances, can make a change.

“Grace Schenck and Hannah Ambler weren’t born to greatness and decided from you know, age two that they were going to give women the right to vote. They were someone’s neighbor, someone’s wife, somebody’s nanny. They’re normal people that in a moment of shifting social tides… they recognized a need for change. No one anointed them the saviors of this movement. They went out and said, ‘How can I get involved?’ and, in some ways similar in some ways different ways, went out and tried to make a change,” Foster said.

Knowing the Importance of Grassroots Movements–Relevance to today

Foster said this exhibit will not only serve as an interesting activity, but a reminder that though Wilton is small, it does not have to take a backseat to if it wants to effect change

“We’re really trying to push that historic, big, national [and] international stories that we think of in history do take place in Wilton,” Foster said. “Every moment we live we live history.”