Sophia Timba | August 04, 2023

Elizabeth Garner Masarik Receives Inaugural SUNY Fellowship

History professor will examine New York State women suffragists from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Elizabeth Garner Masarik, an Assistant Professor of History, has been named the inaugural Dr. Virginia Radley SUNY Fellow. The position was created by SUNY Chancellor John B. King, Jr in honor of Women’s History Month with the aim of supporting the research and celebration of women’s contributions to the development of New York State.

Masarik’s research has focused largely on women’s history and reform movements in the United States.

Elizabeth Garner Masarik

While doing work for Dig: A History Podcast, which she co-produces, Masarik discovered an interesting link between women’s rights activists of the 19th century and unconventional religious practices.

“I was looking at this site on women’s rights, and I found some really interesting people who were suffragists but they were also Spiritualists,” said Masarik. “Spiritualism is essentially the attempt to speak to the dead.”

Masarik explained that historical context may shed light on the connections between the religion and the women’s rights movement in New York State.

“In the period of the 1820s to 1850s, there was this religious revival throughout America, and in New York State all of these alternative religions were popping up. Mormons, Shakers, Seventh-day Adventists… these are all popping up in the area known as the Burned-over District, and Spiritualism is one of those that came out,” she explained.

This was also during the time the telegraph was invented, which sped up long-distance communication from a matter of months to mere hours.

“It seemed almost magical,” Masarik said. “Suddenly the idea that they could speak to people in the afterlife didn’t seem that crazy. There were people called mediums who claimed they could receive messages from the spirit world.”

Spiritualism wasn’t only radical in the religious sense — it was also an inherently feminist take on religion.

“There was no longer a need for a preacher or a priest to interpret religion for its followers. Now mediums — who are mostly women — are able to tap directly into the spiritual world, which kind of turned this idea of patriarchal religion on its head.”
Elizabeth Garner Masarik

She found that Spiritualism and activism were deeply intertwined well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, much later than previously understood. Mediums had strong networks within the women’s rights movements, with figures like Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw working closely with many professed Spiritualists and practicing mediums. Masarik’s research aims to make sense of these relationships and highlight some unsung New York heroines of the women’s rights movement.

“The purpose is to uncover these connections. How or why did Spiritualism allow women to make connections with other women reformers? Did it shape their worldview to be better leaders? And why is Spiritualism kind of understudied and why are these New York suffragists and Spiritualists that I study unsung heroes?”

Masarik is using the grant awarded through the fellowship to visit archives across the country as she delves deep into the lives of these New York State Spiritualist women.

This grant allows me to essentially go full time on research. I’ll be spending a lot of time in the archives.
Elizabeth Garner Masarik

“This grant allows me to essentially go full time on research. I’ll be spending a lot of time in the archives,” she said. “Research that could typically take me ten years, I can fast track and complete much faster now.”

As the inaugural fellow, Masarik is excited to set the tone for future fellows by using this opportunity to do research she feels is important. “I think these are stories that need to be told,” she said of the Spiritualist suffragists. [ME(3]

“There are a lot of laws coming out across the nation that are making voting harder, and maybe we can learn from these women who worked so hard to get women the vote. It’s thinking about the importance of the vote and what that means in a representative democracy.”