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Celebrating Suffrage

Alumnus brings awareness, access to roles of citizenship as Nashville library director

Nashville Public Library director Kent Oliver, ba '77

From The Ichabod - Winter 2020

One hundred years ago sounds like a long time, but the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote in 1920 is just as significant today. At Nashville Public Library in Tennessee, library director and Washburn University alumnus Kent Oliver, ba ’77, is honoring this critical component of democracy by spearheading a multimedia experience celebrating the amendment. Opening this spring, the Votes for Women exhibit will allow essential discussions surrounding citizens’ rights and the importance of voting to take place in a modern context.

“Suffrage is not a term just used for women and voting, but it’s a term used for voting in general,” Oliver said. “We think public libraries are maybe the most important institution in our democracy. We think it’s important that a library really celebrate the opportunity to vote and talk about the importance of the vote for our society to move forward.”

Nashville is a fitting location for the exhibit. The Tennessee legislature cast the clinching vote to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920, more than half a century after the women’s suffrage movement began. Additionally, much of the activity surrounding that tie-breaking decision happened at the historic Hermitage Hotel, only a block away from the library. Oliver said Votes for Women will highlight Tennessee’s historical role and contribute to the library’s mission of reaching all members of the community.

“Information is such a valuable commodity,” Oliver said. “We can have all kinds of debates about misinformation, but I think libraries help people make decisions with the best information possible. We’re very much about helping people come to their own conclusions through an intellectual freedom process where we provide access to all sides of issues.”

At Washburn University, history Professor Rachel Goossen also insists it’s vital to continue talking about how women gained the right to vote. She has been teaching 20th-century U.S. social history for more than 20 years, and part of that includes the story of women’s suffrage – a story many of her students are hearing for the first time.

History Professor Rachel Goosen“I’m always so amazed – many students did not know this story,” Goossen said. “It’s one of the most inspiring stories we have in our nation’s history. When students do learn this story, I think it affects how they think of their own right to vote, and they don’t take the right to vote for granted.”

According to Goossen, women’s suffrage in America gained traction at the same time as similar movements around the world, particularly in New Zealand and Scandinavian countries. It also dovetailed with the rising prominence of other women’s rights issues, including property rights and divorce rights, as well as the civil rights movement. For decades after the 19th Amendment passed, many African Americans continued to be denied access to voting through poll taxes, literacy tests and other barriers.

This spring, Washburn’s annual WUmester, which is intended to foster a University-wide conversation on a diversity-related topic, has a citizenship and suffrage theme. This will give students the chance to discuss the rights and responsibilities of citizenship both in the United States and around the world.

“We consider (women’s suffrage) to be a 72-year struggle,” Goossen said. “The roots of it date back to 1848, when Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a variety of other advocates got together and discussed their grievances about the lack of women’s rights in the country at that time. Voting was not their sole cause, but it was part of a whole constellation of human rights issues, including abolition of slavery, that they worked on in a concerted and diligent way.”

Oliver sees a strong connection between his history degree and his current role as a library director, and he credits his time studying at Washburn and working at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library with helping grow his love of stories and their role in intellectual discovery.

“There’s an element of story in history, and that is the part I’ve always found intriguing,” Oliver said. “I’ve always wondered what went on before us and how we got here, and I think there’s a lot of history tied up in library work.”

Oliver’s work at the library also seeks to address modern challenges related to citizenship, literacy and other social issues. To help people gain access to the resources they need, Oliver ensures the library and its programs are visible in the community. He believes knowing and talking about our shared history is fundamental to ensuring everyone continues to enjoy the right to vote, a sentiment echoed by Goossen.

“It’s actually a broader human right to be able to participate fully in the political process,” Goossen said. “It’s a privilege to be able to vote, but there’s also a responsibility to make sure that other people’s rights are not trampled over in the way that women’s were for many years.”

WUmester Spring 2020

WUmester 2020 logo

WUmester is intended to foster a University-wide conversation on a diversity-related topic that will change each spring semester. The goal of the program is to engage the entire Washburn community in a collective learning experience on timely subjects and help students see the connections between the subjects they study in the classroom and real-world debates and problems.

WUmester logo

Full schedule of WUmester events


More of The Ichabod's coverage of WUmester:

Driving Discussions: Anniversaries of voting amendments will draw focus on citizenship, suffrage

Stunning Collection: Mulvane acquires photos from Pulitzer Prize winner’s book

Fighting Words: Washburn alumna active in national suffrage work prior to 1920 amendment

Party Lines: Bi-partisan efforts better equip students for citizenship roles

Celebrating Suffrage: Alumnus brings awareness, access to roles of citizenship


The Ichabod Winter 2021 issue

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. Read the 2021 winter edition online and look for it in mailboxes in January.

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