PEN America, the literary advocacy and human rights organization, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, from July 22 through October 9 the New-York Historical Society is hosting PEN America at 100: A Century of Defending the Written Word, an exhibition of 60 artifacts, documents, ephemera, and posters from the organization, dating from 1922 to today. The exhibition touches on the influence of numerous influential writers who have been involved in the group, including such notables as Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Ellison, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Jerzy Kosinski, Sinclair Lewis, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Susan Sontag, John Steinbeck, and Dorothy Thompson.

“What’s notable to me, in doing research for the exhibition, was the strong and important leadership roles women have had in the group, starting with its founder, Catharine Amy Dawson Scott, continuing through to today, under CEO Suzanne Nossel,” said Bridget Colman, a PEN America Trustee, who cocurated the exhibition with Lisa Schlansker Kolosek. “Women know the secret to success for any cause is gathering people and support.”

Over the years, PEN America has had a strong influence both domestically and internationally. In the 1960s, for example, it lobbied on behalf of Black writers, to amplify their voices. The 1980s was a particularly active decade, as the association fought for more favorable representation in the press for those suffering from AIDS and, subsequently, for LGBTQ and women’s rights, and rights for writers in communist countries. In 1989 it stood up on behalf of Salman Rushdie after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses prompted Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to call for Rushdie’s death.

All of this is represented in the exhibition. Sometimes, the group courted controversy, such as in 2015, when PEN awarded Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Gérard Biard and critic-essayist Jean-Baptiste Thoré the Freedom of Expression Courage Award following the murder of a dozen people at the satirical newspaper in Paris that year. This prompted some 200 writers to sign an open letter criticizing PEN. All this is touched on in the exhibition, as well.

Colman said the anniversary and exhibition are especially relevant at a time when we all need to be reminded of the important role PEN is playing in the defense of freedom of speech and human rights in our toxic political environment. “It’s fascinating to look at the history and realize that, while PEN may have started as a supper club after WWI, it quickly became political,” Colman said. She noted that PEN organized a special meeting of some 500 writers in 1939 to address the threat Hitler presented to the world, an event echoed in May this year when PEN convened an Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers. This year’s event drew 80 writers from around the world to the Trusteeship Council Chamber at the United Nations where a wide range of topics were addressed, including climate change, book banning, identity politics, the marginalization of literature in global culture, and the role of writers in a time of upheaval. At the meeting, Ukraine’s Andrey Kurkov discussed the horror of Russia’s invasion of his homeland, and Sri Lankan novelist Shehan Karunatilaka criticized the role of social media in spreading disinformation while also praising its use in fomenting political protest at home. PEN America is working on an oral history project that aims to capture thinking on the topics discussed.

Today, PEN’s political ambitions are front and center. As Colman pointed out, it now has an office in Washington, D.C., and Nossel, who took over as CEO of PEN in 2013, came to the organization from Amnesty International, where she was executive director, and previously served as deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.

Nossel emphasized that PEN America and its mission is more important now than ever. “This moment in time, we are facing unprecedented challenges to freedom of expression stemming from the rising tide of authoritarianism spreading around the world,” Nossel said. She emphasized that the organization’s mission hasn’t fundamentally changed in the past 100 years and still reflects the consciousness of writers who founded it. “We have long argued that having a vibrant community of writers is a public good,” she said. “That is what we as an organization fundamentally believe. And since free expression is at the root of democracy, it is what we are here to fight for—and today, we have a real fight on our hands.”