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
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. …