Denied a Voice, They Refused to Be Silent.
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
Featured image caption: Suffragists in Virginia generally were white, educated, and upper-middle-class women. Photo credit: Equal Suffrage League Papers, Library of Congress
Words and images courtesy of Slover Library.
We Demand: Women’s Suffrage in Virginia, a traveling panel exhibition from the Library of Virginia running September 29th–November 3rd at Slover Library, commemorates the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that granted women the right to vote.
On November 2, 1920, nearly 80,000 Virginia women, both black and white, eagerly went to the polls to vote in what the nation viewed as a remarkable event—the first time that women in every state exercised the right to vote. We Demand presents the full, but little known, story of the campaign for woman suffrage in a key southern state where traditional views about women (and much else) held sway. Despite the challenges they faced, Virginia suffragists created an effective state organization, the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, that coordinated the efforts of scores of local chapters located not only in urban areas but, surprisingly, in remote and rural areas of the state as well. Indeed, they succeeded in their original objective of persuading the General Assembly to propose a woman suffrage amendment to the state constitution.
In 1917, Norfolk’s Pauline Adams picketed the White House in Washington, DC, and was arrested and sentenced to the Occoquan workhouse. Photo credit: Library of Congress
We Demand helps us understand who these women were and how they developed the practical arguments and strategies they believed would work with those they needed to convince. The exhibition also explores the divergent opinions of white Virginian suffragists as they debated whether their goal should be an amendment to the state or to the federal constitution, and whether their tactics should merely on persuasion or militancy. Some Virginia suffragists joined the more radical Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (now the National Woman’s Party) and actively participated in demonstrations in Washington, D.C., where they were arrested and jailed for their efforts. In a state that had substantially disenfranchised its black male citizens, African American women had to work more quietly than their white counterparts to avoid a backlash that might jeopardize their cause. Their contributions to the suffrage movement in Virginia have often been overlooked. We Demand presents their efforts on behalf of social justice and suffrage as an important part of the story.
The exhibition also includes a video that uses photographs and newsreel clips of events such as the 1913 suffrage march in Washington, D.C., (in which Virginia women participated) and the 1919 promotional tour called the “Prison Special.” Women who had been jailed for protesting traveled the country by train. Clad in replicas of their prison attire, they shared stories about their harsh treatment as a means to garner support in state legislatures for the federal amendment then under consideration for ratification.
We Demand is supported in part by the General Assembly’s Task Force to Commemorate the Centennial Anniversary of Women’s Right to Vote. The free exhibition opens to the public in the first floor Slover Library Forum on September 29th through November 3rd and will be available to view during library hours.
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