Exhibit Recounts Strivings of Women Reformers

Article excerpt

THE year was 1918, and Christia Adair, an African-American suffragist, worked tirelessly in Kingsville, Texas, collecting signatures on petitions demanding that women be allowed to vote. She and thousands of other black women across the country thought their work was over when the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.

But when Adair attempted to vote in her first primary, she was turned away. Not for another 45 years would black women and men be guaranteed the right to vote under the Voting Rights Act.

Adair is one of hundreds of women activists who have fought for basic rights for American women and society in this century. Twenty-eight of these women are featured in "Women in Action: Rebels and Reformers 1920-1980," a traveling exhibit inspired by this year's 75th anniversary of women's suffrage.

"The exhibit honors many women who left a deep imprint on American political history, but whose accomplishments may not have been recorded in textbooks," says Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters, which is sponsoring the show. "Their actions are gestures of faith in people's power to shape history outside of political parties."

The show, which began a tour of 16 cities on Feb. 27, pays particular attention to the contributions of women of color, whose stories are not generally well known. There is Tye Leung Schulze (1888-1972), who aided Chinese-American girls who had been sold into slavery, and Sarah Winnemucca (1844-1891), who fought for native American rights. They are joined by the more familiar historical giants, such as Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), a freed slave who became a black-rights activist, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), a suffragist and organizer of the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848.

The exhibit brings home the point that these women were instrumental in securing advancements in many areas of American society. Their work brought public-health laws, labor laws, equal rights and civil rights, as well as a wider availability of more effective forms of birth control.

The exhibit's vignettes tell many stories of women's struggle and triumph. By 1917, 2 million women had joined the National Women's Suffrage Association -- a forerunner to the League of Women Voters -- under the leadership of the imposing Carrie Chapman Catt. The NWSA was a mainstream group that believed in working through the system.

A second group active at the time, the 60,000-strong National Women's Party (NWP), was more radical and modeled its protests after the English suffragists' movement, picketing and burning speeches of President Woodrow Wilson in front of the White House.

MANY sectors of society were opposed to the suffragists and waged campaigns against them. …