ITHACA, N.Y. — The portraits and stories of unsung women who fought for suffrage will be on display at the History Center for an upcoming exhibition celebrating the centennial of women’s right to vote in New York.

Artist Christine Nobles Heller, formerly of Ithaca, has created portraits and large murals of suffragists for the upcoming exhibition, “Truth is the Only Safe Ground to Stand Upon,” part of “Portraits of Suffragists to Celebrate the Centennial of Women’s Right to Vote in New York State.” The exhibition will run from Saturday to Nov. 4.

On Tuesday, the public could stop by to watch Heller sketch large murals of suffragists Matilda Joslyn Gage and Louisa Lord Riley in charcoal onto a gray wall visible to visitors as the first walk into the History Center. What got Heller drawing suffragists, specifically from New York, was the Hillary Clinton campaign.

“I kept thinking ‘Wow she got this far in her campaign and there must be so many women we don’t even know about who helped sort of pave the way, not help her maybe specifically,’ so I went right back to the suffragists,” Heller said.

While suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are well known historical figures, Heller said she discovered hundreds of lesser-known women who took part in the movement. Her drawings also happened to coincide with the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in New York.

Christine Nobles Heller works on a mural of Matilda Joslyn Gage at the History Center. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice
Christine Nobles Heller works on a mural of Matilda Joslyn Gage at the History Center. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

The portraits she chose to draw were somewhat limited by the quality of photographs available. Heller said she put some of her own interpretation into her portraits based on what she felt the woman did in her life. While the photograph available of Matilda Joslyn Gage is somewhat soft and limited in detail in places, Heller sharpened her features and brightened her eyes.

“The focus really was to make these women sort of intensely here with us,” Heller said.

Gage, who lived from 1826 to 1898, was an abolitionist, suffragist and writer. She became president of both the National Woman Suffrage Association and the New York State Woman Suffrage Association and collaborated with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on “The History of Woman Suffrage.” She believed Church teachings on women’s inferiority were the greatest obstacle to women’s progress, and because of that was accused of hating God and religion. Because of her anti-Church stance, Gage was virtually written out of the women’s suffrage movement.

Related: Ithaca flash mob reads ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ to honor anniversary of first Women’s Rights Convention

Heller’s work often focuses on social activism. She has created portraits and murals that reflect her concern about human suffering and social inequality. Heller has constructed three installations about the Iraq War. She has also created murals about the Syrian refugee crisis.

Heller now lives in Cooperstown, but is an Ithaca native.
The other woman featured on the mural to the left of Gage is Louisa Lord Riley, who lived from 1836 to 1917. Riley moved to Ithaca in 1894 from New Jersey, where she had been active in the suffrage movement. However, when she got to Ithaca she found women were very conservative. She devised a way to ease women into the idea of the suffrage movement by creating a “Woman’s Club,” where they discussed “acceptable” issues like literature, education and current events. On every fourth week, they would discuss suffrage. Though it was acceptable to the women of the group, it was not so to the community at large. But despite the opposition, the club continued. Riley was the club’s first president and remained honorary president until her death in 1917, just prior to women gaining the right to vote in New York.

At 6 p.m. Friday at the History Center of Tompkins County, as part of First Friday Gallery Night, Heller will give a presentation about her work and after, there will be a preview of the opera “Pushed Aside,” composed by Persis Parshall Vehar and libretto by Gabrielle Vehar. The exhibit will officially be unveiled Saturday and run until Nov. 4.

Heller’s work is part of a local Women’s Suffrage Series. The following free public programs are also planned:

  • 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30 at The History Center In Tompkins County – “The Very Greatest Victory,” a presentation by Karen Pastorello and Susan Goodier, authors of the recently-released book, “Women Will Vote: Winning Women’s Suffrage in New York State.”
  • 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6 at The History Center in Tompkins County – “Truth is the Only Safe Ground to Stand Upon,” an artist talk by Christine Nobles Heller, and a Preview of the Opera “Pushed Aside” by Persis Parshall Vehar about Matilda Joslyn Gage, the forgotten suffragist.
  • 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 10 at the Tompkins County Public Library – The Local Struggle for Women’s Equality, a talk by Tompkins County Historian Carol Kammen.
  • 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 24 at The History Center in Tompkins County – a panel discussion “Perspectives on Voting” in collaboration with the Dorothy Cotton Institute and League of Women Voters.
  • 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26 at The History Center in Tompkins County – Anthologist Stacey Murphy and other authors will read from “New York Votes for Women: A Suffrage Centennial Anthology.”
  • 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26 at the Tompkins County Public Library – “Centering Black Women: Race in the Woman Suffrage Movement,” a presentation by SUNY Oneonta Professor Susan Goodier.
  • 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 1 at Cinemapolis – “Iron Jawed Angels,” a film screening sponsored by The History Center in collaboration with Cinemapolis and Ithaca College’s Project Look Sharp.
  • 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2 at The History Center in Tompkins County – “Women’s Suffrage and Political Office: A Seat at the Table,” a panel discussion being held in partnership with the Tompkins County League of Women Voters.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.